In his Vienna Lecture of 1935, Edmund Husserl argues that the emergence of philosophy from the surrounding world of the Greeks marks the primal phenomenon of Spiritual Europe, which puts in place the ideal of science as the infinite task of reason. Modern science’s objectification and mathematization of the world at once satisfies this teleological demand of reason and endangers it. For the replacement of the rational, thinking subject with a naturalistic psychology threatens to make senseless the teleology of Europe. Europe’s historic project thus falls into a weariness of spirit, in which faith in reason is lost, and European humanity is brought to a crisis in which irrationalism seems to be the final step of its rational development.
Phenomenology, which begins with Brentano’s discovery of an actual method for grasping the activity of consciousness in constituting the meaning of its objects, plays a fundamental role in the resolution of this paradox. Purified and systematized in Husserl’s own transcendental phenomenology, this method suspends all commitment to objective-naturalistic explanation, and thus offers itself as an absolutely self-sufficient science of spiritual intentionalities. The resultant reorientation of science, in which the role of the constituting intellect can be radically clarified, allows the rationality of the task of knowledge to be regained. Though European rationalism has nearly burnt itself out, constitutive phenomenology offers a new spiritualization of reason, in which Europe’s mission for humanity may rise up like a phoenix from the ashes.[i]
For Husserl, the European identity of phenomenology was not to be understood in terms of geographical or ethnic boundaries but rather in spiritual terms, as the infinite demand of reason. Nevertheless, it is only because of the antecedent constitution of a European spiritual sphere that the peculiar methods and aims of phenomenology have a meaning and motivation. Though phenomenological investigation can be undertaken by non-Europeans, as phenomenologists, these investigators become “Europeanized” in taking up the European spiritual project. The possibility of phenomenological investigation is therefore bound up, at least for Husserl, with the spiritual crisis and progress of Europe. But is phenomenology essentially European, so that descriptive science has meaning only within a living tradition of rational inquiry? In that case, the universalizing tendency of the European scientific interest would rightfully be considered as the endogenous force driving phenomenological investigation. Or, alternatively, is phenomenology only accidentally European, so that reflective analysis as a method of philosophizing was merely codified in the German university but is in principle amenable to non-European interests? If that were so, the particular content of a phenomenological analysis might be given exogenously by a surrounding world that is not essentially European. The historical examination of the phenomenological movement in North America has the potential to clarify how these two seemingly heterogenous pictures of phenomenology – one of the expansion of a European cultural sphere to new lands and persons, the other of the absorption of way of seeing that is enjoyed by diverse subjects who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise – can be reconciled.
Lester Embree and Michael D. Barber’s new volume, The Golden Age of Phenomenology at the New School for Social Research, 1954–1973 makes the plausible point that development of North American phenomenology depended on the New School for Social Research as a site of transference between two distinct surrounding worlds, the pre-war European university and the post-war American mass culture. The introduction, one of Embree’s final works before his death last year, presents a periodization of American phenomenology in which the New School mediates between the world of the German university and the post-Husserlian global phenomenological movement (2-11). According to Embree, the first stage of American phenomenology, beginning before the outbreak of World War I, and ending with Husserl’s death in 1938, was characterized by a few individual students of philosophy – notably the Harvard students Marvin Farber and Dorion Cairns – introducing Husserl’s “new” (post-1900) thought to the United States. The second, New School stage, marked the creation of a philosophy department in which phenomenology was both a topic of research, especially in the work of the “New School Three” – Alfred Schutz, Aron Gurwitsch, and Cairns – and a central pedagogical concern, educating a generation of American phenomenologists, who are represented in this volume. The later stages, in which American phenomenology turned toward existentialism, then to embodiment, and was ultimately absorbed into so-called “Continental” philosophy are, by Embree’s lights, a bastardization of the constitutive phenomenology that began with Husserl. Whereas constitutive phenomenology was concerned largely with Wissenschaftslehre, the theory of the natural and cultural sciences, these later stages are presented as falling away from the Golden Age tradition, increasingly focusing on merely “anthropological” concerns (5). The absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy, the introduction suggests, threatens to replace the original conception of phenomenology as a project of grounding universal and rational knowledge with personalistic questions about finitude and embodiment. Interestingly, Embree claims that it was he who coined the term “Continental philosophy” in 1978, a designation about which he later became “at least ambivalent.” According to Embree, “Continental philosophy” is like NATO, a mere political alliance of conflicted parties, who are united only in their shared opposition to analytical philosophy (11). In any case, if his periodization is correct, the stage considered in this book marks an important moment of unity in American phenomenology, between the individualistic pursuits of Husserl’s first American students, and the diversity of the post-constitutive phenomenological movement.
The remainder of the introduction provides an admirable discussion of the centrality of the New School in introducing phenomenological approaches not only in philosophy but also in the social sciences, a role that has been unwittingly downplayed in previous histories (18-32). If Embree is right, it seems that the book proposes to investigate an important site of transference between European constitutive phenomenology and post-war American intellectual culture. One hopes, then, for an intensive historical study of American phenomenology that would render valuable insight into phenomenology’s “dual citizenship,” on the one hand as a European descriptive science, and on the other hand as a global philosophical movement. However, in my view, the book does not offer such insight, since it fails to present a philosophically unified picture of phenomenology as it was practiced during the Golden Age, and of the American phenomenological movement that stemmed from that allegedly fertile soil. This failure is due to the fact that both the interests and methods of phenomenological investigations presented in the book are largely unrelated to one another. As a result, the book reads more like a compilation of phenomenologists and their projects than as a unified treatment of the period in question.
The book is split into two sections, the first on the teachers of phenomenology at the New School during the Golden Age, the second on students who graduated from the program under their tutelage. Both sections follow roughly the same format, consisting of a memoir concerning the individual’s time at the New School (or, if the person was deceased at the time of writing, a short biographical section) and a study by that individual.
The first part, on teachers, focuses on six figures – Schutz, Cairns, Marx, Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm. Michael Barber’s description of Schutz at the New School is mainly an epitome of certain sections of his biography of Schutz. Though it contains a number of interesting anecdotes about the period – such as Schutz’s quip that he deserved a sabbatical “every sixtieth year” and Leo Strauss’s dismissal of Schutz as a “philosophically sophisticated sociologist,” it tells little about how the peculiar environment of the New School affected Schutz’s already-formed intellectual outlook. This is followed by a masterful essay in which Barber addresses the question of how a phenomenologically informed theory of social science, which stresses the constitution in consciousness of the objects of inquiry, can allow for unintended consequences of actions, such as are required in “invisible hand” explanations in economics. Drawing on Schutz’s work on Goethe, Barber argues convincingly that the Schutzian should regard the spontaneous orders cited in such explanations as not being “brutely there” in the world of economic action but rather as “correlates of the conscious activity of the economist” (50). Far from insisting that unintended consequences not consciously grasped by the individual actors who cause them are covertly in the minds of those actors, Schutz can attribute the spontaneous orders cited in social scientific explanations to the conscious activity of the theorist. The essay by Schutz that follows, a critique of positivism in the social sciences, relates to Barber’s essay insofar as it postulates that the objects of social science – which presumably include those spontaneous orders of concern to Barber – are “constructs of the second degree,” that is, outcomes of the selective activity of the theorist who observes agents acting in their shared social world (65-66).
Embree’s summary of Cairns’ involvement with phenomenology contains some interesting excerpts from unpublished works, especially concerning the latter’s studies in Freiburg in the 1920s. In one anecdote, attending professor Husserl’s office hours, the enthusiastic young American defends the thesis that, strictly speaking, only “perspective appearances” can be seen. Gazing at a box of matches he is holding and turning it in his hand for some time, the professor finally and rather loudly responds, “Ich sehe den Streichholzschachtel.” In four words, Husserl demolishes the theory of sense-data so popular at the time, while Cairns is “startled into recognition of the obvious” (82). However, the following essay, composed in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in which Carins critiques Nazism as a form of “epidemic” irrationalism (97-98), seems unrelated. As interesting as his analysis may be, especially in light of Husserl’s own critique of European irrationalism discussed at the outset of this review, this essay seems to have no bearing at all on phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School over a decade later. Though we have been told that New School phenomenology is to be understood as a continuation of the Husserlian theory of science, that concern seems to be absent from this essay.
The chapter on Werner Marx is arguably even less helpful for understanding the New School stage of phenomenology. Despite Thomas Nenon’s able summary of Marx’s career, the essay included, which intends to reinvigorate Hegel’s notion of the “necessity of philosophy” for the realization of a pluralistic society, seems to have little to do with phenomenology. True – it ends with opposed characterizations of traditional, Aristotelian ontology as fundamentally theological and thus as leading to a teleological conception of philosophy, and the phenomenological conception of Lebenswelt (120-122). But Marx’s reflections are not themselves phenomenological in any recognizable sense. Moreover, the date of the essay is never given, and one wonders what bearing, if any, his views might have had on the development of American phenomenology.
The chapters on Gurwitsch, Mohanty, and Seebohm are also unmotivated, given the stated purpose of the volume. Zaner’s discussion of Gurwsitch at the New School is, I suppose, interesting enough. But it does not even mention of his adoption of William James – after Gurwitsch’s emigration to the United States – as a seminal, proto-phenomenological figure. This is a shame, because Gurwitsch’s essay on the object of thought is arguably even more influenced by James than by Husserl or Gestalt psychology (see e.g.134-138). Again, though there is much to be said about Gurwitsch’s Jamesian understanding of the object of thought, the entire topic is out of place here: the essay was composed in 1946, long before his tenure at the New School, and has already been reprinted in a widely available edition of Gurwitsch’s essays.[ii] The sections on Mohanty and Seebohm also have little to do with the period in question. Mohanty (150) reports, in his somewhat telegraphic memoir, that he arrived at the New School not long before Gurwitsch’s death in 1973, and no essay by Mohanty is included in the volume. Seebohm taught at the New School from 1980 to 1982 and his essay, on the human sciences, was apparently composed in 2004. Though Seebohm was by all accounts a kind colleague and considerate teacher, he was absent during the Golden Age. One wonders whether he should have been included in the volume at all.
Though it is possible that such anachronistic inclusions might still contribute to our understanding of what made the New School stage of American phenomenology distinctive, one finds nothing in the book itself to justify such a view. The fact that the figures included attended conferences, offered courses, and gave talks on a variety of issues and figures, does not by itself offer any insight into American phenomenology, except by suggesting that the movement (if there was one) was thoroughly integrated into the routines of American academic life. Judging by these diverse contributions, it seems that the teachers at the New School were unified neither in their method nor in their doctrine but were simply rather successful merchants in the post-war American marketplace of ideas.
The second part concerns the students during the Golden Age and has roughly the same format, though I will focus primarily on the essays. The chapter on Maurice Natanson is quite short, consisting of a description of the mentor-student relationship between Schutz and Natanson, and a summary of Natanson’s existential phenomenological work on literature, both by Barber. This misses the opportunity to include unpublished work by Natanson or some of the Schutz-Natanson correspondence, which is cited here but never discussed in detail.
The chapter on Thomas Luckmann is more substantial, including both a memoir and a 1972 essay, the main claim of which is that language could never be exhaustively explained by empirical science, since the presuppositions of the empirical sciences present philosophical problems that must be resolved within language (201). What follows is a somewhat technical but certainly rewarding account of the polythetic constitution of the experience of a speaking other in the face-to-face situation (208). Here, Luckmann’s view seems to be that in linguistic communication, I directly experience an individual “like me,” due to an automatic polythetic constitution of his experience in my own stream of consciousness. In the face-to-face situation, my own stream of consciousness and his stream of consciousness are therefore experienced as “synchronized” durations, though his experience might become thematic for me, when he uses a certain form of expression that keys into a relevance structure that is part of my stock of knowledge at hand.
The chapter on Helmut Wagner consists of two short and encomiastic (we hear, for example, of Wagner’s “selfless desire to bring phenomenology to sociology,” 218) pieces by George Psathas, which nevertheless present Wagner’s fundamental contribution as “synthesizing” the work of Schutz (225). In the course of this treatment, we are told that Wagner left an unfinished philosophical anthropology of the life world (226). An excerpt from this work would have undoubtedly added value to the volume, by showing how Wagner came to understand a fundamental phenomenological idea late in his life. Instead, the reader is offered nothing by Wagner himself.
Fred Kersten’s essay, the longest in the collection, is an extended meditation on the connection between imagination and fiction. Beginning with the work of David Hume and Sir William Hamilton, the essay distinguishes depictive, feigning, and presentative functions of the imagination (232-240). A phenomenological clarification of these aspects of imagining allows one to understand the double sense of imagination as an intentionality that makes present non-presentive objects and as a feigning intentionality (243-244). The essay then turns to a discussion of the epistemology of fiction, focusing on Natanson’s concept of the “disjunctive convergence” of the worlds of imagination and reality. In the activity of reading a novel, for example, one can attend to the feigned world of the fiction only by suspending the real world, in which one nevertheless continues to read. The disjunction between the world of fiction and that of reality thus depends on a convergence between them, which itself is an achievement of feigning consciousness of the reader (256-257). The upshot of this line of thought is the claim that the world disclosed in a work of fiction is autonomous but feigned, such that I can take responsibility for it, but never enter into it, as I do the actual world of everyday life (263).
Richard M. Zaner’s essay focuses on the connection between cognition and embodiment in two cases of “locked-in syndrome,” in which a patient’s mind is left intact while his body is almost completely paralyzed. In the first case, after suffering a massive stroke, M. Bauby is able to perceive normally but unable to control any part of his bodily “husk,” except for his left eyelid (282-283). Zaner focuses on Bauby’s increasing dissociation from the world and resultant sense of grief. This at once shows the close connection between Bauby’s sense of personal identity as being dependent on his embodiment, but also problematizes the connection between mind and body, since his sense of loss is due to his awareness of the increasing separation of his “living” mind from his “dead” body. In the fictional second case, after being bombed in the trenches of World War I, a soldier called Joe is rendered blind, deaf, and dumb, but nevertheless retains the ability to feel touch and to move his head. Long unable to express that he is conscious, Joe’s rhythmic head-tapping is finally recognized as Morse code by a nurse, who responds by tracing letters on his chest that spell out “Merry Christmas” (283-285). Zaner’s concern in this case is to describe the act by which Joe finds himself recognized as a subject. The discussion here turns to Schutz’s contention that the experience of social reality is founded on a second-personal attitude, in which I posit another subject “like me” (290). Though Zaner’s argument is somewhat obscured by a block quote of uncertain origin, in which Max Scheler’s work is compared to that of Schutz (290-291), its central claim is that Schutz’s conception of the second-personal attitude was not wrong but one-sided. Though Schutz was correct in saying that I understand myself as a self by orienting myself to the other, he ignored how the other becomes attuned to me as another self (296). Thus, Joe’s self-recognition is constituted in part by the nurse’s recognition that within his husk of a body, there is a conscious subject, capable of thinking and communication. The upshot is that the theory of intersubjectivity must accommodate not just Schutz’s point that one is oriented in the social world by one’s recognition of other subjects, but also the more radical view that this orientation depends on one’s willingness and ability to be treated as other, the special target of second-personal attitudes.
The following section by Embree continues his criticism in the introduction of American phenomenology’s turn toward scholarship. For Embree, the elevation of scholarship at the expense of investigation, which he calls the “philologization” of phenomenology, is the most important and most deleterious effect of the recent absorption of phenomenology into “Continental” philosophy (12). According to this view, the “Continentalization” of phenomenology runs directly counter to the original intentions, not only of Husserl but also of the New School phenomenologists, who extended the research program of constitutive phenomenology to domains never imagined by Husserl, not through scholarship on texts but by what Gurwitsch called “advancing the problems.” Embree continues this critique of the present focus on scholarship in his memoir, claiming that primary research in phenomenology consists of investigation, that is, in the reflective analysis of a certain domain, with scholarship only serving the secondary purpose of clarifying concepts used in such investigations (306-307). Accordingly, Embree’s essay provides a reflective analysis of valuation, focusing especially on the distinction between the noesis of valuing and the noema of the thing-as-valued. Though this descriptive account is undoubtedly of some interest, the finest feature of this chapter is how it exhibits the work of reflective analysis to the reader. Embree’s introductory methodological comments (312-315) are delivered in plain language, such that they could be read by someone with minimal prior exposure to phenomenological texts. Likewise, the analysis itself offers a compelling way into the question of how valuing intentionality is related to willing, believing, and experiencing. This section is perhaps best understood as an invitation to the reader to engage such in reflective analysis, and thus to practice phenomenology itself.
Jorge García-Gómez’s chapter, on Julián Marías’s interpretation of José Ortega y Gasset’s notion of belief, focuses on an interesting distinction between a “true” or genuine belief, and a belief that is true (326-333). The distinction is worth making because, it seems, the possibility of beliefs being true depends in part on the possibility that human beings can authentically undertake responsibilities for our beliefs about the world. This section would have benefitted from the addition of introductory paragraphs connecting it to broader philosophical concerns of commitment and epistemic normativity. However, it appears to be an excerpt from a longer work, in which its role is surely more perspicuous.
Giuseppina C. Moneta’s “notes on the origin of the historical in the phenomenology of perception” is a kind of reflective analysis of historical perception. Following Piranesi, who would “let the ruins speak” to him, this essay takes the ruins of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s Villa Adriana, located at the outskirts of Rome, as its theme (340). According to the view developed by Moneta in the course of this investigation, historical “seeing” is constituted by a complex interplay of the complementary but not fully integrated appearing and non-appearing aspects of a built environment (343). Though her analysis is suggestive, it would have been strengthened by more description, both of the architectural site itself and of the constitution of that site as meaningful, instead of relying as it does on quotes from the great men of phenomenology, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
Osborne Wiggins’s essay argues that Natanson is to be understood as a philosopher of freedom, for whom existential experience marks a break from the typified, social world (364). This essay is very convincing and clarifies at least one respect in which constitutive and existential phenomenology are complementary rather than dissonant. However, it would have fit much better into the section on Natanson, in which his existential turn is one of the central issues.
William McKenna’s final chapter argues that the adoption of a concept of relative truth would help experts in conflict resolution bring opposed parties to “agree to disagree” (378). McKenna’s essay is thus mostly concerned to spell out a concept of “lifeworld truth” that avoids the consequence of “subjective idealism” but allows for multiple, correct interpretations of a single reality, through a reactivation of Husserl’s concept of evidence (381-382). According to McKenna, the same statement (such as “these mountains are holy”) may be true for one cultural group while being neither true nor false for another group, since the qualities necessary for reaching such a judgment are simply not available in the latter’s lifeworld (384). This is an interesting proposal but is a peculiar interpretation of Husserl’s notion of evidence. Surely Husserl’s conception of evidence was intended to clarify the foundation of the sciences, rather than to relativize the concept of truth. Though it is plausible that it could be put to other uses, it seems that this would require further argument than is given here.
The book ends there, without a conclusion, leaving at least this reader confused. What is this volume is meant to do? Is it primarily an historical work about phenomenology as it was practiced at the New School for Social Research from 1954 to 1973? If so, it fails to shed light on what phenomenological investigation looked like during that period: hardly any of the essays are from the era in question, and most of them are not reflective analyses. Is it a collection of thematic essays illustrating a particular style of phenomenology? In that case, how are the essays connected with one another? The broad collection of topics – economics, value, architecture, and truth, inter alia – ensures that whatever else may be at stake, no single theme ties them together. Or is the book an encomium, publicly honoring a generation of American phenomenologists? In that case, we should expect essays on a wide variety of topics, written as continuations of the work of Golden Age phenomenologists. Yet even here, the book provides few uniting features either methodologically or in terms of the figures cited. Though it focuses almost exclusively on Western European writers, the figures mentioned are so diverse in attitude and interest, it is hard to detect any unifying purpose in their work. What has Hume to do with Piranesi, or Hegel with Ortega y Gasset? The absence of any suggestion of an answer within the book leads one to the conclusion that, although nearly all the essays are of interest individually, some offering masterful treatments of difficult topics, there is apparently no inner logic to the book itself.
The promise of the book, to elucidate a Golden Age in American phenomenology, is a noble one. In failing to deliver on it, the book both misses the opportunity to shed light on an allegedly important moment in the history of phenomenology and shirks the task of clarifying the relation between the descriptive attitude of phenomenological analysis, the authority of phenomenology as a science, and its status as the product of a European spiritual sphere. Consequently, the reader is not put in a place to reconcile the two competing images, one of the world phenomenological movement as the expansion of European culture beyond its continental limits, the other of the absorption of a way of seeing by diverse practitioners who bring their own interests and concerns to the enterprise. Is it possible that the various anecdotes about and citations of the teachers at the New School do not cover over some more basic problem with the book’s conceptualization of American phenomenology? The nostalgia of the volume makes one wonder whether the Golden Age itself, rather than being a real movement or distinctive era in phenomenology, is nothing more than the myth of a more innocent and progressive post-war America. Perhaps what the New School phenomenologists offered as gold and diamonds, turned out to be no more than copper and glass.
[i] Carr, D. [Ed.] 1970. Edmund Husserl: The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 276, 298-299.
[ii] Gurwitsch, A. 1966. Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Marklen E. Konurbaev’s new book, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a rich phenomenological account of speech in its varied forms. The book not only focuses on the phenomenology of the speech act itself, but addresses what it is like to hear, read, compose, process, understand, and respond to speech. This review will provide a summary of Konurbaev’s account and rhetorical style. The first section provides a general overview of Konurbaev’s overall account. The second section addresses the phenomenology of creating (i.e. composing and performing) speech. The third section examines the phenomenology of receiving (i.e. hearing or reading) speech, including the mental processes we perform to internalize and understand speech. In the fourth section, I examine Konurbaev’s rhetorical style, both in terms of the structure and elements of his argument and with regard to the material he chooses not to include in his book. This section also proposes a brief critique of Konurbaev’s account and methodology, although the main substance of his account is strong and will remain unchallenged in this article. While portions of the book pay special attention to specific parts of speech (i.e. different kinds of terms and the relationships between them), I will primarily focus on Konurbaev’s account of speech as a phenomenon as we encounter it in speaking, listening, and reading.
I. A Brief Overview of Konurbaev’s Account
Before fully exploring Konurbaev’s book, it is crucial to define the scope of his account and the terms with which he explores speech. Konurbaev speaks often of “life” (ihya) and “awakening.” He is primarily interested in the ways in which speech prompts us to create vivid visual representations in our minds and prompts us to engage with the world and individuals around. “Life,” then, does not refer to anything biological, although it certainly depends on a biological organism to produce it. Rather, Konurbaev uses “life” to refer to the living, changing mental concepts and representations in our minds when hearing, creating, performing, or understanding speech. He writes that “’Life’ … is a phenomenon that is largely dependent on the speech agent’s ability to build in his or her mind a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection of interrelated objects caused by the act of linguistic communication…” (Marklen E. Konurbaev, Ontology and Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech, 5). “Awakening” is the process by which speech stimulates this mental life, the process by which the listener builds “a dynamic, evolving and balanced reflection” of the life in the speaker’s mind.
Two other concepts are vital to understanding Konurbaev’s account: foregrounding and backgrounding. Foregrounding essentially consists of the concepts at the focus of our attention, the material with which we are primarily concerned, while backgrounding consists of the concepts, emotions, and other material through which we interpret and analyze the concepts in the foreground. Konurbaev writes:
In the highly changing world of speech perception where the weight and value of every linguistic element in speech may change several times, the mental vision of life strongly depends on the ‘ratio’ of the span between the currently prominent elements and those that remain in the dark, in the perspective. As we move on during speech comprehension, this proportion should certainly change. But the twilight area, or the proportion of the positive and negative prominence should always remain stable. If it does not, the representation of the reality becomes ‘lopsided’ in a sense that the element that was bright and perceptually strong a page or a minute ago cannot possibly retain this condition in the new linguistic circumstances. This variation of phenomenological objects in speech gives them the volume that is so necessary for their natural human perception. (63-64)
Decoding speech thus requires balance between the “prominent elements” (the terms and concepts that are the focus of the message) and the background concepts and perspectives through which the message is interpreted.
With these concepts in mind, the central claim of his book is that “every act of communication should be a phenomenological act in a sense that it causes the experience of life awakening in the minds of readers or listeners. A phenomenon then is neither the sun when it rises, or the moon when it appears, or the stars scattered in heaven, or the clouds after the rain—but the dynamic mental representation of the reality caused by the act of speech” (x). Konurbaev is primarily interested in the first-person experience of life awakening and of interacting with speech phenomena. Readers should thus not be surprised when they primarily encounter examples from literature or personal anecdotes from the author rather than hard biological material. I return to this point in section IV.
How best to summarize Konurbaev’s account? The clearest explanation is that Konurbaev sees speech as a dynamic process in which we internalize and integrate information and concepts as part of our mental life; when we wish to stimulate life awakening in others, we engage in a process of searching and composing the proper terms to recreate our own mental life in the mind of the person receiving our speech, responding to the visual and verbal cues they provide to alter our speech accordingly. We receive a speaker’s words and construct tentative mental representations of their ideas, transforming those images as more information becomes available. When speaking, we gauge whether or not the receiver understands the message; if they do not, we seek new ways of conveying the message.
II. The Phenomenology of Creating Speech
Although Konurbaev spends most of the book exploring the phenomenology of linguistic interpretation and the ways messages generate life in the mind of recipients, he also provides a rich phenomenology of speech creation. The goal of speech is to stimulate life in the mind of the receiver. Speech, then, “is a representation of its author’s thoughts, ideas, communicative intentions and emotional states” (31). To do this, speakers employ language, which Konurbaev says “is like a chain of ‘genes’ that are reproducible and recognizable, and yet, susceptible to variation that may or may not introduce a change into a long-established system” (56). Language changes over time just as genetic material evolves across generations, incorporating new elements and discarding outdated and ineffective terms through the series of human speech interactions. In crafting speech, “Every user of language invariably checks the elements available to him or her in the process of communication and decides whether their potential is strong enough to express the desired meaning or attitude” (Ibid).
Crafting a message requires both a consideration of the potential meanings of terms and of the background context through which the message will be interpreted. Speakers must be aware of the receiver’s frame of reference and the cultural assumptions he or she may hold to understand the range of possible interpretations he or she may form, and thus select the words, emotions, and rhetorical style that will best stimulate the life the speaker wishes to create. Speakers produce their messages by gathering previously used concepts and speech interactions and anticipating the ways receivers may interpret the message.
Speech is not just about conveying concepts and information the way textbooks do, however. Speakers aim to produce emotions, to persuade, to win approval, to convey feelings and experiences in the minds of receivers. The ultimate goal is to produce “faith, which is an authentic representation of reality in speech, a synthesis, an effect of a moving life, of ‘living’ through a new experience, which is mental and yet real, ample and organic, mixed with the person’s past experience—a phenomenon of sustainable movement and change” (115). To do so, speakers must use terms and a rhetorical style “that would evoke the complete scenes of life in the reader’s or the listener’s mind as quickly as possible” (123).
Konurbaev writes that speakers compose messages essentially by taking a “general vision” (Topos) and compiles words to convey that vision to the receiver, “[returning]… as many times as possible to add all the features discovered during the communication act to its overall vision as life” (148). This involves “drafting” a vision of the topology, breaking the concepts up into parts, forming bonds between the elements of the Topos, and then selecting terms and phrases that capture these elements (149-150). This process is subsequently mirrored in the perception of speech, as receivers analyze the bonds and interpret the message through the hermeneutic circle and compose their own Topos.
III. The Phenomenology of Receiving Speech
The process of receiving and internalizing speech occurs in many stages. In his introduction, Konurbaev writes that “we decode the linguistic message at least eight times” (7). First, we decode speech syntactically, analyzing the structure of the message. Second, we examine the message for “logical integrity with fact” (Ibid). Third, receivers examine the message for its expressive meaning in terms of foregrounded material. Fourth, receivers begin to analyze the overall meaning, to hypothesize about the life the speaker wishes to prompt in the receiver. Fifth, we begin to use emotional cues to integrate background concepts and memories to deepen our understanding. Sixth, receivers predict or anticipate the overall direction of the remainder of the message and subsequently use this information to inform the seventh step of correcting the draft mental representations produced in the first five steps. Finally, “the eight level of the genesis of life in speech permeates and encapsulates all the previous ones through mental audition, the chief function of which is to support one of the main constituents of life balance and hierarchy of the key reference points of speech” (Ibid).
Crucially, each of these processes occurs within the wider context of backgrounding and foregrounding, and of the background assumptions and beliefs we hold about the world and of each other. Assumptions and other conceptual elements in the background become lenses through which we interpret the speaker’s message; elements of the message jump into focus, into the foreground or spotlight of our attention, while others drift to the background to help construe the foreground elements properly. Konurbaev writes that the interpretation of speech involves both historical and predictive elements (25-26), calling to mind the Heideggerian emphasis on gathering the historical and present facts about oneself and projecting them into the future to assess one’s possibilities (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927)). In the same vein, receivers gather background assumptions, historical events, and knowledge about the speaker and the message to predict the direction that message will take, anticipating the meaning and adapting one’s mental representations of the message accordingly.
The result of these processes is a world of visual and conceptual representations, of life in the mind of the receiver. Moreover, Konurbaev argues this type of life presents an objective reality, “as real as our material bodily life is, in a sense that it is built on our vision of the whole undivided body of vision, because ontologically only the whole has the potential of sustainable living” (Konurbaev, 38). This world is unstable, however, and relies on the internal consistency of the message elements: “Life is a hierarchical world where every element of reality is deemed real only when its existence is justified by other elements and is not at odds with them” (39). If elements disagree, life collapses and the receiver must begin to construct their mental representations anew. Thankfully, the human mind is adept at handling the processes of creating and sustaining life: Konurbaev acknowledges that we seldom get bogged down in the fine nuances of everyday messages, and life is capable of rapidly “regenerating” itself in the face of errors and new information (40-41).
But how do our minds successfully interpret messages and construct life from concepts? Konurbaev lays out what he calls the String Theory of Foregrounding. The basic concept of the theory is that “A string is a mental association drawn between the words in the context of speech. Once the correlation is established, the reader draws the mental map of relative prominence of words and their relationship to each other in representing the subject of the text” (65). Readers scan the text for elements to bring to into focus (into the foreground) and then connect conceptual strings of meanings to form “shapes” of larger concepts and meanings. Konurbaev calls the places at which strings (meanings) intersect and converge “impact zones,” areas in which the meaning of the message is strongest (68).
There are several kinds of conceptual strings involved in producing life. Structural strings, composed of the syntactical elements of the message, connect the conceptual elements of the message to each other, conveying the relationships between the terms. Semantic strings pertain to the meaning and flavor of the concepts and terms in the message. Epistemic strings contribute to the formation of knowledge, and “rely on the preliminary vision of the whole [message]” (77). Attitudinal strings seek to invoke “feelings and judgments ranging between acceptance and rejection” (92). Although we must possess all of the strings to weave the full meaning of the message together, Konurbaev observes that the mind generates life before the message is complete, and receivers must continuously alter their mental images as more information becomes available.
Konurbaev writes that “Speech perception is unthinkable without empathy and Dasein” (152), pointing to the idea that receivers must understand the lived experience and life situation of the speaker, predicting those elements that may not appear in the words of the message itself. Just as Dasein incorporates one’s previous lived history, context, and the facts about one’s existence in projecting one’s possibilities into the future, the phenomenology of speech involves careful consideration of one’s life experience, “general worldview, erudition, level of education, emotionality and linguistic proficiency” (156). Speakers and recipients essentially make observations, recall previous observations, make generalizations based on “the realities of our lives,” and project this information into the future, forming mental representations of messages and observations “and their influence on the course of our lives” (160).
IV. Konurbaev’s Rhetorical Style
Konurbaev’s book explores speech in vivid terms. While the basic concepts could be conveyed in a comparatively dry, brief style, Konurbaev employs examples from literature to demonstrate the ways readers or receivers of speech explore messages for meaning, building complex and rich strings of concepts as they proceed and more information becomes available. He uses examples ranging from the book of Isaiah in the Bible (5-11) to a parable written by Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (15-16), from Søren Kierkegaard (23) to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (52). Konurbaev also uses rich language to produce an artistic phenomenology of speech, using metaphors and similes to describe the true flavor and experience of speech. Describing the phenomenon of conveying an idea to others, he writes:
‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known; and I spake and made myself known to the multitudes and they harkened unto the manner of my speech and then unto the matter thereof; and then spake in return and while beholding how I felt about their speech they knew me, and I, in beholding their reaction unto what I ere said—knew them; and, finally, I began to know myself through the contemplation of these people’s reaction unto my words and, alas, gained but little satisfaction in this pursuit, but am still struggling in good earnest to understand if I actually live and have the enthralling vigour of life in my veins or have already evaporated into the thin air of ephemeral illusions of the multitude.’ (1-2)
As mentioned in section III above, Konurbaev uses the imagery of strings and canvasses to artfully describe the ways our minds construct visual representations and meanings from perceived speech. His artistic language and varied examples makes for a flavorful, lively read.
For all of the things Konurbaev’s book does well, there are two critical points to be made about his rhetorical style. The first concerns the materials he includes and the materials he ignores. The book does not provide any true biological account of the ways our brains process messages and speech. Granted, Konurbaev clearly states that his book is meant to present a phenomenological account of the lived experience of speech, not a biological or neurological account of how we process and create speech. However, he spends considerable time focusing on what he claims are thought processes that occur in our brains, and on page 164 provides a graphic representation of a brain carved up by sections corresponding to different neurological functions. While the graphic is suited to the purpose and context of the passage, readers may often catch themselves wondering how much of Konurbaev’s account is based in actual observation, in actual scientific data. Moreover, even if Konurbaev’s account is completely accurate, the book would only benefit from a brief chapter or several sections detailing the biological side of speech. Philosophy is concerned with completion, with grasping all aspects of a phenomenon, and the book would only be stronger by including that material.
Further, Konurbaev only truly addresses the biological in the beginning of Chapter Seven, “Organon of Life as a Phenomenon of Speech,” where he writes that “The biological aspect [of speech] has little or no effect on the quality of life as we, people, see it and live by—as humans, not merely as one of the members of the animal kingdom” (169). He divides life (i.e. the mental representations involved in speech) into Life(p), life as a mental phenomenon and lived experience, and Life(b), the biological processes and senses on which we base Life(p) (170). There are two rhetorical issues with this section. First, it simply seems false that the biological aspects of speech have little effect on mental life, given that the lived experience of speech and interpretation supervene on the proper functioning of biological processes. Second, the distinction between Life(p) and Life(b) is crucial to parsing Konurbaev’s account in the proper context. Up to that point in my reading I often wondered why he hadn’t addressed the role of biology in his account, and many readers may have the same experience. Konurbaev’s account would be best served by including this material earlier in the book and simply recalling it as needed in Chapter 7, rather than waiting to introduce it until the later stages of the work.
A second point of criticism concerns the order in which Konurbaev discusses his ideas. He does not address the whole of a concept or factor of speech in one location in the book; he does not proceed sequentially from what it is like to create speech to what it is like to receive and decode that speech, for example, but rather meanders through topics as the chapters progress. The result is that one only fully grasps the phenomenology of the various components of speech by the end of the book, but not very clearly throughout, making it difficult to anticipate where the account is heading. This actually resembles Konurbaev’s central claims about speech interpretation: receivers construct hypotheses and mental representations of the message and continuously revise and incorporate new information as it becomes available, only reaching true understanding once the whole message has been delivered. Similarly, speech is a complex phenomenon that Konurbaev’s readers may only fully grasp by the end of the book. Whether or not the metaphor is intentional, it would be easier for readers if Konurbaev organized his book around the individual parts of speech as a phenomenon (i.e. creating speech, receiving speech, speech parts, etc.) rather than drifting between topics.
Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech provides a compelling, broad phenomenological account that captures all of the varied aspects of speech as a lived phenomenon. The book is well-suited for anyone interested in the philosophy of speech or in phenomenology in general, and is an excellent contribution to the field.
Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (SUNY University Press, 2010). Originally published in 1927.
Marklen E. Konurbaev. Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).
 Unless otherwise stated, all references are taken from Ontology And Phenomenology of Speech: An Existential Theory of Speech by Marklen E. Konurbaev (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).
The “Social Imaginaries” series from Rowman and Littlefield International aims to publish important works on this and related concepts “from theoretical, comparative, historical, and interdisciplinary perspectives” and with an “international, multi-regional and interdisciplinary scope.”[i] The present volume focuses more narrowly on thinkers its editors see as having provided the basis for philosophical discussions of productive imagination, specifically the continental tradition following Kant (vii). This focus is not meant to be exclusive but rather supportive of diversity and further original inquiries (xii). With this goal in mind, the volume indeed offers eight helpful, well-researched essays; and we may hope that this strong foundation will spark future studies meeting the more global aspirations above.
This review will outline what I see as the central arguments of each of the essays. My goals are to reveal the broader lines of their interconnected narrative and then to indicate a few potentially fruitful avenues for future research suggested by the volume.
One of the volume’s most sweeping essays is its first one, Dmitri Nikulin’s “What is Productive Imagination?” Nikulin situates the modern concept of imagination within the grand history of Western ideas, from the Greeks to German idealism. Aristotle’s imagination, defined as the capacity to have an “apparition of a thing in the absence of that thing,” plays a central role in this narrative (3). Even so, Nikulin notes that Aristotle leaves the imagination’s powers dependent on prior perceptions, and thus his view contrasts with the Kantian imagination’s potential apriority and spontaneity (4). Nevertheless, even for Kant imagination remains doubly dependent: it is bound to sensibility insofar it must offer presentations within the predefined formats of spatial and temporal intuitions; and it is bound to understanding insofar as it constructs figures or schemata within the constraints of the a priori categories (4-5). If the former constraint links Kant to Aristotle, the latter reveals some similarity to Proclus, for whom the imagination adapts the intelligible, Platonic forms to finite thinking (6). In either sense, however, Kant’s imagination, even in his aesthetics, ultimately serves to harmonize other faculties: understanding and the senses. Thus, its spontaneity is always contained by rational norms and the receptive capacities of the subject; it has no completely independent status (11).
Even so, the imagination has a strong grip over us precisely because it can actively overlook its essential dependency. Thus, Nikulin speaks of the imagination as having a “negative” power to deny its sources (14). In this respect, imagination’s supposed originality must be hedged: “imagination imagines that it produces something new” (14, my emphasis). It creates a pretention to positive creativity, even though it is really a “radical negativity” (14). This pretension appeared dangerous to Kant, whose arguments restricted even creative genius to the mere exemplification of rules; absolute creativity he reserved for the idea of God (14).[ii] As later thinkers tried increasingly to free imagination from this Kantian dependency, they steadily severed its link with experience and thus lost the vital relationship between imagination and memory (19).
Two questions come to mind in light of Nikulin’s compelling conceptual history. First, its caution against severing the link with memory is related to Nikulin’s broader point that imagination somehow renders “non-being” (i.e. what does not presently exist) present for us. In Nikulin’s account, however, “non-being” carries the significance of the past, the has-been, or the no-longer (20). In this sense, the question of the imagination’s relation to hope and to futural “non-being” could be raised. I will return to this avenue later, as it is suggested by other contributors.
Second, Nikulin’s stage-setting essay displays the broadly European focus of the volume, with few references beyond that scope. Additional avenues thus appear for research on non-European conceptions of imagination or its analogues. Likewise, within the broader canon, future research could explore the medieval adaptation of the Aristotelian phantasm, and especially its history in Islamic thought. For even the European reception of Aristotle and Proclus is heavily mediated through the Islamic tradition (e.g. al-Kindī on prophecy and dreams; Ibn Sīnā’s explicit distinction of estimation from imagination and his widespread use of imaginal thought experiments; Ibn Tufail’s use of fictional narrative; Ibn Arabi’s “nondelimited imagination”; and so on).
Kant’s importance in the history of productive imagination is of course clear as well, and Alfredo Ferrarin’s essay defends the importance of Kant’s liberation of imagination from its previous role of copying contingent events of sensibility. Imagination now “moves about idealizations and conjectures formulated in deliberately counterintuitive ways, transforms things into possibilities until we establish an invariant core, and plans experiments to verify conjectures” (33). Its emergence in philosophy is thus linked historically with the emergence of the scientific method (32). This link likewise explains why Ferrarin warns us not to confuse Kant’s scientific “productive imagination” with the truly social-ethical “practical imagination,” which is only hinted at in Kant. The practical imagination aims not at understanding objects but at instituting practical end-goals. In the latter we find no “split between independent reality and likeness” as we do in the former (38). (Ferrarin mentions cases such as the constantly reinstituted social meanings of, e.g., bank notes, temples, marriage, and traffic rules.) In general, Ferrarin emphasizes that the practical imagination enables us to grasp alternative practical possibilities; it reveals “the gap between being and possibility, fact and ideal, real and possible” (38). Thus, imagination is necessary for a social critique capable of proposing new norms, in the sense Ernst Bloch and Castoriadis recognized (39). Ferrarin’s essay is thus essential for understanding the way the term “imaginary” is often used in critical theory and practical philosophy and how these development differ from Kant’s scientific imagination. That said, Ferrarin does suggest that Kant’s aesthetics—and other contributors concur regarding other aspects of later Kant—offers hints of the practical imaginary (45).
Moving the narrative from Kant to German romanticism, Laura S. Carugati argues that we move there from an “ontogonic” to a “cosmogonic” use of imagination (52). In other words, for figures like Novalis, Schleiermacher, and Schlegel, imagination provides the basic framework or “horizon” for the experience of objects, rather than merely prefiguring the particular objects we perceive. In Schlegel, this shift liberates the imagination from the aforementioned Kantian norms; and hence Carugati highlights Schlegel’s claim that “because imagination won’t let itself be linked to the world of things […], it can function in a free and independent manner, according to its own laws” (54). Similarly, in Novalis, “to romanticize” becomes an active, imaginal engagement aiming to unite the poles of the various Kantian dualisms (55). The resultant synthesis, known as “art,” is not a mere product or thing but rather a life-structuring “event” (57). Arts, as engagements in imagination, do not merely imitate or reproduce but rather “discover or institute an ordering principle that shapes the original chaos into a romanticized world” (57). In a sense, then, even the Kantian divide between human productivity and divine creativity gets mediated here; art and reality become indistinguishable.
We may note at this point the helpful coherency of the volume’s narrative as it places each figure in conversation with contemporaries and predecessors. This historically informed narrative is again supported by Angelica Nuzzo’s compelling contribution on German idealism. She defends the centrality of productive imagination not only in Fichte and Schelling (where it plays an explicitly important role) but also in Hegel, where the textual evidence for its centrality is much less prevalent. Nuzzo claims that “Hegelian spirit is informed by the Kantian notion of productivity proper to the imagination of the genius,” albeit in a way that gets “extended beyond the aesthetic realm, and thereby deeply transformed” (73). Imagination moves from a merely subjective role into an absolute role as “self-actualizing conceptuality” (77).
Nuzzo’s argument could be reconstructed into four steps. First, Kant’s third Critique suggests that imagination is schöpferisch (and perhaps not merely exhibitive of aesthetic ideas); it creates “another nature” from the given nature of the senses (74). Second, Fichte notices and radicalizes this creativity, such that imagination produces even the “material for representation” (74). And this productivity, Nuzzo argues, is equated by Fichte with Geist. Third, Schelling renders the imagination productive not only of representation but also of the actuality of things themselves, thus giving it the absolute role Kant had reserved for intellectual intuition (71). Finally, fourth, Hegel appropriates but reworks and reverses this “absolute” productive imagination. Certainly, on the one hand, Nuzzo acknowledges that the Encyclopedia subordinates imagination to a merely subjective moment of spirit (76). But this subordination does not stop Hegel, she argues, from adopting exactly the productivity highlighted by the preceding idealists’ account of imagination. Thus, on the other hand, the Phenomenology and Logic, she argues, adapt this very productivity to the role of a self-producing absolute, with the caveat that, contra Schelling, its truth is now said to be revealed only in the end of its development. For Hegel, “no absolute identity, absolute indifference, or absolute creation out of nothing […] can be placed as the beginning-origin of an immanent discursive process” (77). Instead, for Hegel, “the logical determination process is immanently and successively articulated toward ever more complex determinations up to the ‘absolute idea’ that makes the end” (78).
While Nuzzo’s thesis might sound extra-textual, it is in fact very closely defended with links between Hegel’s texts and those of Kant and Fichte. And if we remember that she aims merely to show that “some fundamental characters of the productive imagination […] become constitutive traits of Hegel’s own notion of Geist” (77, my emphasis), then we should be, I believe, persuaded, despite the relative non-centrality of the vocabulary of “productive imagination” in Hegel. Nuzzo’s contribution is likewise essential to this volume insofar as it defends a narrative leading into Hegel that can help clarify our persistent suspicion that there are Hegel-like traces in later concepts often referred to under the broad label of “social imaginary.”
The conversation within German thought continues with Rudolph A. Makkreel’s essay on Dilthey. Whereas Kant’s aesthetic imagination helps us shift from narrow, personal experiences of pleasure to universal judgments of taste, Dilthey similarly thinks that imagination can broaden us and test “how local commonalities relate to universally accepted truths” (92). This broadening occurs partly through what Dilthey calls the “typifying imagination.” Artists, for example, can “articulate” felt connections pervasive in an era by exemplifying them into figures, characters, or events (87). Whereas thinking produces concepts, imagination “produces types” (95). And whereas the historian’s imagination merely fills in gaps and supplies coherency, the artist’s has more freedom (e.g. in fiction, painting, etc.). With artworks, we experience their “typicality” not when we understand something generic about them (like norms) nor when we look at particular, material qualities. Rather, for Dilthey, the typicality of an artwork its “distinctive style.” For example: “The style of a Cézanne painting cannot be intuitively defined by the visible lines and colors […]. Style is an inner form that can only be imaginatively captured by following out the intense interplay of the angular and curved shapes that Cézanne projects into our medial horizon of vision” (96).
With respect to this “inner form,” important for Makkreel is Dilthey’s shift from an earlier view arguing that it is discovered through personal introspection, to a later, non-psychologistic, and more contextualized view that the “feelings of a composer like Beethoven are musical from the start and exist in a tonal world” (99). That is, we must be conversant with a broader system of perspectives and facts (as seen “from without”) in order to understand ourselves or others (101). In this sense, Dilthey accepts the Hegelian concept of objective spirit, with the qualification that his rendition of spirit is nothing that “submerges individuals and regulates human interaction in the overall course of world history” but rather is a “locally definable ‘medium of commonalities’ that nurtures each of us ‘from earliest childhood’” (101). The best way to think about such local “artistic medial contexts” is to consider particular examples: “Beethoven cannot but think of Haydn and Mozart when composing a quartet while also striving to chart his own path” (102). Grasping these larger constellations of sense requires tapping into an imagination that “goes beyond reality in such a way as to illuminate it” (85).
This point about the imagination’s power to “go beyond reality” opens up some important avenues for research on additional figures whose inquiries emphasize similar functions. We might think of Feuerbach’s imagination, with its power to alienate us through negating our dependency and this-worldly finitude. This critical route would of course lead into discussions of Marx and Freud but also through Husserl into Sartre’s early works, which contain, as in Dilthey, more positive valences regarding this “going beyond.” In Sartre, for example, beauty is said to be “a value that can only ever be applied to the imaginary and that carries the nihilation of the world in its essential structure.”[iii] Using the very example of Beethoven, he argues that “the performance of the Seventh Symphony […] can be manifested only through analogons that are dated and that unfurl in our time. But in order to grasp it on these analogons, it is necessary to operate the imaging reduction, which is to say, apprehend precisely the real sounds as analogons.”[iv] Sartre thus engages with two themes central to this volume, namely imagination’s link to non-being and, as in Dilthey (and later in Ricoeur), its helpful role in revealing the world through an “as”-structure.
Next, breaking the train of German thought is Nicolas de Warren’s essay on Flaubert’s diagnosis of human self-deception (as interpreted by Jules de Gaultier). The essay proposes a valuable distinction between productive imagination and creative, novelistic imagination (106). With the productive side we imagine ourselves as something other than what we are and thus become self-deceptive. The creative side, by contrast, which is manifest in the novelist’s art, allows us to perceive the self-deception without falling prey to it. The artist’s perception “becomes a truthful mirror of the world by virtue of the imagination’s power of magnification, or modification, which renders visible what remains otherwise invisible” (113). The novelist shares in a kind of “pure perception,” i.e. an “absorption” in the world rather than a scientific “possession” of an object (113). This pure perception generates the novel almost as a by-product and allows an adult to learn that she falsely “pursues a notion of herself for which neither she nor the world affords” (123). Such false images are not merely epistemically worrisome, as de Warren clarifies, since they also impact the world of our desires, as when a person “makes the world around her boring in order to despise the world even more so as to serve as propellant for an even more vengeful and intense abandonment to the imaginary” (129).
De Warren’s essay brings to mind two avenues. First, his essay links self-deception to productive imagination’s power to deny what we are. Flaubert’s characters are shown to succumb “to the universal fiction of striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be” (107). That said, other contributors raise the prospect of finding positive value in imagination’s penchant for proposing non-extant alternatives, i.e. ones worth striving for. Hence, de Warren’s essay raises the question: Could there be a good version of “striving to be what one is not, and not being what one desires to be”?
Second, de Warren’s essay could perhaps be read as an alternative account of what René Girard refers to as Flaubert’s “novelistic truth.”[v] Certainly, Girard’s and de Warren’s readings agree that “truthful forms of fiction” helpfully reveal the dangers of self-deceit and self-imposed insatiability (110). But a difference may reside in whether we think the novelist’s deliverance from self-deception stems from what de Warren emphasizes or what Girard claims. De Warren emphasizes that deliverance is achieved through the novelist’s share in pure perception, or an engagement with the world prior to and free from socially-influenced self-images. On this reading, the problem behind self-deception is that the “spontaneity of an individual’s self-shaping personality” has become “reduced to a condition of mimetic inertness” in our society (112). Self-deception consists in a person concealing from herself the fact that “she is the author of her own fate” (124). By contrast, on Girard’s reading, Flaubert unmasks precisely as self-deceit one’s belief that one is the unmediated, pre-social author of desires, i.e. desires that would be valid simply because they are one’s own. Under the sway of such a belief one fails to see that one’s desires are always mediated through imitation of others’ desires. The novel offers deliverance in that it allows us to see through the vanity of the “romantic lie” and to critically recognize our own interdependency. Hence, if I understand them correctly, these readings not only differ but pull in opposite directions. I should state that I am not unsympathetic per se to either reading of Flaubert; rather, it is the prospect of a dialogue that strikes me as a fruitful avenue to pursue.
As for an important dialogue that is explored in this volume, Saulius Geniusas reviews the Cassirer-Heidegger encounter at Davos. Geniusas frames the debate as hinging only overtly on divergent interpretations of imagination in Kant. On Cassirer’s reading, the productive imagination is formed and contextualized by its share in an independent understanding and reason; for Heidegger, reason is formed and contextualized by the finitely situated productive imagination (138). But the deeper issue between them, argues Geniusas (agreeing with Peter E. Gordon), concerns their basically divergent philosophies, including their views on moral freedom. Cassirer thinks imagination’s share in reason allows it spontaneity and the power to step back from any finite dwelling. Fundamentally “homeless,” we can use our imaginations to “trespass the boundaries of […] merely natural existence and enter into the domain culture,” where we construct an infinite variety of cultural modes of existence (140). For Heidegger, by contrast, the productive imagination defines our existential-temporal mode of receptivity to a world and thus marks us—in both our knowledge and action—as essentially finite. Cassirer, Heidegger thinks, lacks a fundamental ontology of the supposedly fully spontaneous being who “enters into” cultural constellations; he suggests Cassirer’s view would merely define humanity through studies of different cultural—and merely ontic—contexts (139). Cassirer would thus (re)create “the ‘They’ world and the deeper forgetfulness of one’s ontological roots” (140). In response, Cassirer thinks Heidegger’s basic mistake is to refuse the independence of reason, as a source of imagination’s freedom, from finite imagination and intuition. This refusal, argues Cassirer, implies the impossibility of genuine moral autonomy or the universality of ethics in Kant’s sense (147).
Certainly, as Geniusas shows, Heidegger and Cassirer attain a kind of nominal agreement on some broad issues, e.g. that productive imagination “produces the transcendental horizons of sense, the operational fields, or the modes of vision, which predetermine human experience” (150). But their basic trajectories, argues Geniusas, are in the last analysis “fundamentally different” (151). Cassirer’s view leads him to emphasize the constructive possibilities of a humanity drawing guidance from reason, while Heidegger emphasizes the need, in his own words, for a “destruction of the former foundation of Western metaphysics in reason (spirit, logos, reason)” (151). Even if Geniusas might not persuade some who see Cassirer and Heidegger as compatible, his essay does provide a clear statement of how the deeper projects of each thinker determine their overt disagreements over Kant.
In the volume’s final essay, George H. Taylor mines Paul Ricoeur’s broader corpus for a thesis on imagination moving beyond his merely explicit views. His explicit views emphasize the power of productive versus merely reproductive imagination and show how the former allows us to understand images separately from any concept of originals. This inquiry then helps us grasp how fictions can be efficacious in altering reality (159). As for Ricoeur’s more implicit views on imagination, Taylor draws on texts from the 1970s and 80s to highlight the concept of “figuration,” a term avoiding merely visual connotations and allowing Ricoeur to analyze metaphor (167). In epistemology, the concept of figuration expands on Kant’s suggestion of an ever-present, “common root” between understanding and sensibility. It implies that reality is only ever given as already saturated with “symbolic” mediation (166). “We do not see; we see as—as the icon, as the figure” (170). Similarly, Taylor finds a parallel role for figuration in Ricoeur’s view of human action: no action is just physical motion; each act always points to or modifies some extant role or another (166). These twin “as”-structures thus always mediate for us between sense and concept, or between deeds and their narration (165). Since there is thus no mode of human life without figuration’s various modes, we can never fully leave behind what Hegel calls “picture thinking” (173). All modes of thought or action occur on the backdrop of an already instituted and “readable” world (171).
In this respect, Taylor’s essay points to a question we have already raised. Several contributions caution against the dangers of denying a connection with one’s past or of losing the link between imagination and memory. Yet it is likewise true that what will arise anew for (and from) each of us tomorrow “is not” as of today but rather, if it indeed comes to be, will emerge tomorrow with an unparalleled uniqueness (at least in some stratum of its emergent reality). Does not the human tendency to overlook the newness in each historical moment (emerging in some sense from “non-being”) constitute a distinct danger, alongside that of forgetting the sedimented nature of the meanings and roles we adopt? While this volume does at times speak to this concern, it refrains—perhaps for the best—from lingering on it or on the metaphysical quandaries involved in references to non-being and creativity. On this issue, interested readers might thus benefit from a sister volume in the “Social Imaginaries,” i.e. the analysis of the Ricoeur-Castoriadis debate.[vi] Taylor, it should be mentioned, also helpfully contributed there.
Done and to be Done
As I have indicated, the merits of this volume are clear. It offers a valuable combination of introductory guidance and original theses. It contains helpful clarifications of how philosophical concepts develop through inter-philosophical dialogue but also in conversation with the arts. It likewise opens avenues for exploring the grand, metaphysical question of human creativity in history. If we approach it aware of its deliberate focus on the Kantian and continental tradition, we will see that its chapters develop a coherent “conceptual history” of a core moment in philosophy. We thus have reason to hope that it will achieve its goal of enabling broader studies on productive imagination. And as it stands, this volume’s essays—appropriate to the productivity they investigate—already instantiate one of the volumes frequent themes: human creativity arises in and with a community of contributors, both extant ones and ones hoped for.
[i] “Social Imaginaries,” Rowman & Littlefield International, last accessed: July 24, 2018: https://www.rowmaninternational.com/our-publishing/series/social-imaginaries/.
[ii] Apart from its emphasis on imagination’s mere negativity, we may note the proximity of Nikulin’s account to the thesis of Cornelius Castoriadis’ essay, “The Discovery of the Imagination” (from 1978; in World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, ed. David A. Curtis, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997). Castoriadis argues that fear of imagination’s creativity has led philosophers to attribute the truly instituting power not to us but to other beings (e.g. ancestors, gods, God, nature, etc.). Both Nikulin and Castoriadis seem to me to echo, somewhat divergently, Heidegger’s reading of Kant as having discovered but later denied the radical implications of productive imagination.
[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 193.
[iv] Sartre, Imaginary, 193.
[v] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
[vi] See Suzi Adams (ed.), Ricoeur and Castoriadis in Discussion: On Human Creation, Historical Novelty, and the Social Imaginary, London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017.
In the introduction of this review I will provide some general comments on the nature of the layout, methodology, and style of Zahavi’s work before moving into a detailed commentary. Page numbers refer to the reviewed work unless otherwise indicated.
Husserl’s Legacy is an attempt to defend Husserlian phenomenology from a variety of perceived misconceptions and misinterpretations that have been voiced from both within and outside of the Continental tradition. In particular, it is an attempt to show that Husserl avoids a variety of positions have been levelled at him as criticisms and which are, one assumes, perhaps seen as out of touch with contemporary trends in Anglophone philosophy, i.e. methodological solipsism, internalism, idealism, and metaphysical neutrality.
Interestingly, Zahavi does not attempt to show that one should reject any of these positions for their own reasons. Nor does he argue that one should reject these positions for the reasons Husserl did (and in fact Husserl’s arguments are not often provided). This remains implicit. The scope of the book is to show, via close study of Husserl’s corpus, that Husserl does indeed reject the aforementioned positions. As interesting as Husserl scholars will find this project, it is an unexpected turn from an author who has claimed that one “of phenomenology’s greatest weaknesses is it preoccupation with exegesis” (Zahavi, 2005, 6). The value of the project is that close exegesis serves to precisely locate Husserl’s position on contemporary philosophical issues. But I doubt that it will serve to bring anyone into the Husserlian tent that does not already have some affinity with it.
Thematically, the book has a cyclical character, and questions which are raised early on are returned to as the work unfolds; the central debates are interwoven throughout the work. The work is decisive, yet also full of Zahavi’s characteristic diplomacy, and his careful and considerate attention to detailed distinctions; Zahavi will often proceed by firstly teasing out different meanings of key concepts like metaphysics or naturalisation. In this work, Zahavi draws on his expert knowledge of the full range of Husserl’s collected works, drawing insightful quotes from a range of primary sources. Zahavi also shows his expertise concerning well known commentaries on Husserl from canonical figures like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and a wealth of other Husserlian interpreters.
Zahavi’s methodological approach is to generally begin with a discussion of the position of an interlocutor who has claimed that Husserl held one of the aforementioned positions (i.e. solipsism, internalism, etc.). One method Zahavi then employs is to outline Husserl’s position on a given topic (say intersubjectivity), and on this basis to reason that it would be inconsistent to assume that Husserl held the position his interlocutors ascribe to him (i.e. methodological solipsism). Of course, this approach assumes that Husserl philosophy is internally consistent. Anyone familiar with the Fifth Meditation, for example, will know that Husserl struggled to bring about this consistency. An alternate method that Zahavi employs in dealing with an interlocutor is to provide a sample of excerpts drawn from a variety of Husserlian texts wherein Husserl explicitly disavows the position in question, or endorses an alternate position, i.e. when Husserl says that no “realist has been as realistic and concrete as me, the phenomenological idealist” (170). This second method is certainly enough to establish that Husserl believed that, on a certain rendering, he did not subscribe in a straightforward way to some of the positions he was reproached with (i.e. idealism), and it means we will need to approach our depiction of his position with care, as Zahavi does. However, like much of Husserl’s project, many of these quotes are what Hopkins describes as ‘promissory notes’—statements which require much filling in and detail if they are to be substantiated. Husserl did not always get around to paying these promissory notes out, and this raises a methodological hurdle for Zahavi.
Zahavi locates Husserl’s position on three central issues. 1) The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics, and the clash with speculative realism. 2) Internalism vs. externalism, and the question of methodological solipsism. 3) The naturalisation of phenomenology. There is far too much dense exegesis to provide an enlightening and comprehensive review in the space available here; I will discuss and provide some criticisms of Zahavi’s discussion of theme 1 and 2. As we shall see, Zahavi thinks that locating Husserl’s position on these themes pivots on the interpretation of two key aspects of the Husserlian framework: the noema and the reduction.
- Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 1.
In this section, I will trace Zahavi’s comments on the metaphysical relevance of Husserl’s early phenomenology. The relation between phenomenology and metaphysics is firstly raised in the second chapter of Husserl’s Legacy. The question which drives this investigative theme is whether or not Husserlian phenomenology can contribute to metaphysical discussions. Zahavi traces the source of Husserlian phenomenology’s purported metaphysical neutrality back to the earlier descriptive project of the Logical Investigations. As Zahavi outlines, for the author of the Investigations, the term metaphysics denoted a science which clarifies the presuppositions of the positive sciences. Metaphysics is, in this sense, the meta to physics. As Husserl is interested in the foundation of all sciences, pure and a priori ones included, he thus sees his project as superseding the metaphysical one. In this sense, Zahavi shows that Husserl saw phenomenology as meta-metaphysical, as various quotes from the Logical Investigations attest. We shall see later that Zahavi provisionally defines metaphysics as taking a position on the question of whether or not physical objects are real or purely mental (ideal) and, as Husserl’s early project does not deign to comment on this issue, it is on this basis that Zahavi views it as metaphysically neutral.
However, Zahavi shows that not everyone has seen Logical Investigations this way. Various interpreters have seen it as a realist manifesto. This reading is motivated by the strong rejection of representationalism which is contained in the Investigations—the reasoning being that, if Husserl is not an intra-mental representationalist, then he must be a metaphysical realist. In response Zahavi claims that this reading ignores one of the key distinction of the Investigations—that between intentional objects which happen to exist in the spatio-temporal nexus, and those that do not. This purely descriptive distinction refers only to modes of givenness, and is indicative of the manner in which the Investigations avoid metaphysics (36).
Zahavi similarly rejects an idealistic interpretation of the Investigations. For example, he discusses Philipse interpretation, which claims that Husserl identifies the adumbrations of an object with the immanent sensations via which these adumbrations are given to us and argues that, as all objects are given via adumbrations for Husserl, all objects are thereby reducible to our immanent sensations. Therefore, Husserl must be some sort of phenomenalist like Berkeley. Zahavi argues that Philipse ignores that Husserl distinguishes between differing parts of a perception, some of which are properties of the object itself, others of which are immanent sensations, and refers to both (unfortunately) as adumbrations. Husserl very clearly states that the reality of an object “cannot be understood as the reality of a perceived complex of sensations” (40).
So, Zahavi shows that, if we are talking about the descriptive project contained in the Investigations, then Husserlian phenomenology is indeed metaphysically neutral, in the sense that it does not take a realist or idealist position on the existential status of physical objects.
Zahavi’s discussion of Philipse utilises the method of providing direct citations from Husserl which contradict one of his interlocutor’s renditions. However, Zahavi also mentions here the spectre which, given this method, haunts Legacy: the validity of Husserl’s assessment of his own project (42). As Zahavi observes, Heidegger was certainly sceptical about Husserl’s evaluation of his own work. This problem is compounded by the fact that some of the claims about his own work are where Husserl spends some of his largest banknotes.
Zahavi agrees that Husserl does not always seem to view his own project clearly or consistently. To illustrate this, Zahavi considers the discrepancy between Husserl’s actual description of intentional acts and his second order reflections on what he is doing. On the one hand, Husserl seems to claim to restrict his analyses in Logical Investigations to the noetic and immanent psychic contents in certain parts. In parts of Ideas 1 Husserl again seems to endorse the claim that only the immanent sphere is totally evident and therefore fair game for phenomenology investigation. However, in both works, he clearly begins to analyse the noematic components of intentional experiences. Although this section is ostensibly in the thematic context of discussing Husserl’s reliability as a commentator on his own work, it very much pertains to the internalist/externalist debate which will take centre stage later, as it concerns the extent to which Husserl’s phenomenology engages with the external world. Indeed, these inconsistencies perhaps illuminate why some of Zahavi’s latter interlocutors have branded Husserl an internalist; perhaps these interlocutors are basing their evaluation on Husserl’s own comments.
Zahavi finishes the section on the Investigations by questioning whether one should react to the metaphysical neutrality contained therein as either liberating or constricting, but then adds the embracing and diplomatic remark that it might be both, or neither, depending on the metaphysical question under discussion. He adds that Husserl began to acknowledge that, if metaphysics is taken in the sense of more than an addendum to physical sciences, then perhaps it might be of relevance to the phenomenologist. He also thinks that there is no need to emphasise the value of the neutrality of the “Logical Investigations at the expense of Husserl’s later works” (47). So, on the one hand, Zahavi endorses the neutrality of the Logical Investigations and simultaneously proclaims its value, whilst on the other hand he paves the way for the more metaphysically relevant phenomenology which is to come with Husserl’s transcendental turn.
- Metaphysics and Phenomenology, Part 2.
In the opening of chapter 3, Zahavi draws on one commentator (Taylor Carman) who engages in a practice which is almost a rite of passage for any commentator on a post-Husserlian phenomenologist: showing how one of Husserl’s successors vastly improved on the project outlined by Husserl. These sorts of analyses almost always end up straw manning Husserl, and Zahavi is right to correct them. Zahavi recounts how Carman attributes the success of Heidegger’s project to his rejection of the method of phenomenological reduction (53). Zahavi shows that a similar account is provided by certain Merleau-Ponty commentators. Zahavi pinpoints that the inaccuracy of these accounts lies in their characterisation of the epoche and the reduction leading to solipsism and internalism (55).
Zahavi characterisation of the reduction emphasises Husserl’s comments which stress that the reduction does not involve a turning away from the world of everyday concerns, and that what is initially bracketed (i.e. the positing of the existential concrete person and the lifeworld they are in) is eventually reintroduced and accounted for. Indeed, for Husserl, it is only because phenomenology begins form the reduced ego that it can, eventually, give an accurate and expansive characterisation of the constitutive activities of consciousness and the existence of transcendental entities. The reduction is, on this reading, not an internalist shift. Zahavi will later also emphasise that, in fact, for Husserl just as the ego is the precondition for the constitution of the lifeworld, the transcendental ego is just as equally constituted by its factical engagement.
Zahavi’s discussion turns to the question of whether or not a transcendental Husserlian phenomenology, which is guided by the reduction, can contribute more to metaphysical discussions than the descriptive variety. Zahavi discusses that two prominent commentators, Crowell and Carr, both assert that the transcendental project is concerned with issues that have to do with meaning. On this rendition, because meaning is a concept which transcends being, transcendental phenomenology is thus unconcerned with reality—and metaphysics.
Contra Crowell and Carr, Zahavi argues that the latter Husserl does embrace metaphysical issues. He uses two strategies to make this claim. Firstly, Zahavi quotes a number of Husserlian passages which show that he thought that phenomenology began to embrace metaphysical questions, for example, when Husserl states that phenomenology “does not exclude metaphysics as such” (64 italics removed). However, as Zahavi then states, Husserl rejected some traditional meanings of the term metaphysics, and at other times was quite equivocal about what he meant by it, so some unpacking is required to determine exactly what Husserl’s really means when he says phenomenology might involve metaphysics. Zahavi explicitly avoids one of the ways that Husserl spelled out the claim that phenomenology did metaphysics (i.e. via the exploration of themes related to the ethical-religious domain and the immortality of the soul).
Instead, Zahavi sticks with the sense in which metaphysics is defined as pertaining “to the realism-idealism issue, i.e. to the issue of whether reality is mind-independent or not” (65). It is therefore surprising that an argument Zahavi makes is that Husserlian phenomenology is relevant to metaphysics in this sense because, if phenomenology had no metaphysical implications, then it could not reject both realism and idealism so unequivocally. The odd thing is that that Zahavi has just argued that, because Husserl rejected both of these positions in the Investigations, the early descriptive project is metaphysically neutral. Here he seems to argue that this rejection is a reason to accept that Husserl’s philosophy has metaphysical implications.
To unpack Zahavi’s claim a little more, however, he thinks that because Husserl took a stand on the relationship between phenomena and reality, phenomenology therefore has “metaphysical implications” (74). Zahavi argues that Husserl thought there can be no ‘real’ objects, in principle unknowable, behind appearances. For Husserl, the phenomena is the thing, but taken non-naively. It is thus Husserl’s characterisation of phenomena which imports the metaphysical implications Zahavi mentions. It thus doesn’t make any sense to talk about some other Ding-an-Sich behind the phenomena; it is nonsensical to say that the Kantian thing-in-itself exists.
As Zahavi notes, for Husserl “the topics of existence and non-existence, of being and non-being, are… themes addressed under the broadly understood titles of reason and unreason” (66). So, questions concerning the existence of the thing-in-itself can be referred to our account of the rational experience of objects in the world. According to this account, for Husserl ‘existence’ entails the possibility of an experience which provides evidence for a thing. The possibility of this experience, however, must be a real and motivated one, and belong to the horizon of an actually existing consciousness. It must not be a purely empty and formal possibility. Put another way, the world and nature cannot be said to exist unless there is an actual ego which also exists that can, in principle at least, experience this world in a rationally coherent way. Thus, “reason, being, and truth are inextricably linked” (72). And so, as a result, we can deny the possibility of a mind independent and in principle unknowable reality, and we can also deny any form of global scepticism. Ontological realism and epistemological idealism are both false. I was left a little uncertain how this position is any less neutral than the one advocated for in the Logical Investigations.
The section on metaphysics can be subject to the criticism that Zahavi proceeds to cite Husserl’s text on a particular issue, and rarely provides any further argumentation or clarification. For example, Zahavi notes that Husserl states that it “is impossible to elude the extensive evidence that true being as well only has its meaning as the correlate of a particular intentionality of reason” (72). One is left wondering what evidence Husserl could possibly be referring to, and therefore why we ought to accept this enigmatic claim. Elsewhere, Zahavi states that “the decisive issue is not whether Husserl was justified in rejecting global scepticism, but simply that he did reject the very possibility of reality being fundamentally unknowable” (73). This is perhaps the decisive issue within the (narrow exegetical) context of Zahavi’s discussions. But surely Zahavi recognises that a lot hinges on Husserl’s justification for his position, especially within the context of the project of keeping Husserl’s philosophy relevant.
In fact, towards the end of the work, Zahavi shows that he is aware of this objection. He states that his “aim in the foregoing text has been to elucidate and clarify Husserl’s position, rather than to defend it or provide independent arguments for it” (208). And it is really the final chapter, when Zahavi places Husserl’s phenomenology in confrontation with speculative realism, that his detailed exegesis of metaphysics bears serious polemical fruit. But even then, what one could take away from these later sections is that certain interpretations of Husserl are incorrect, and that perhaps Husserl’s position is more coherent or valuable than that of the speculative realists. Zahavi is aware of the need for more detailed and concrete analyses than the ones he has provided, and even notes that Husserl “remained unsatisfied ‘as long as the large banknotes and bills are not turned into small change’ (Hua Dok 3-V/56). A comprehensive appraisal of his philosophical impact would certainly have to engage in a detailed study of the lifeworld, intentionality, time-consciousness, affectivity, embodiment, empathy, etc.” (211). Such small change can only be rendered by a close examination of the things themselves, however.
- Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 1.
The fourth chapter aims to situate transcendental Husserlian phenomenology within the context of the internalism vs. externalism debate. Zahavi notes that several commentators (namely, Rowlands, Dreyfus, Carman, and McIntyre) have considered Husserl an “archetypal internalist” (79), often using Husserl’s position as a foil to later phenomenologist like Sartre or Heidegger. Zahavi traces this conception of Husserl to the West coast ‘Fregean’ interpretation of the noema. Zahavi strategy, as he states (82), is not to argue for the East coast interpretation (he considers this issue settled, has addressed it in earlier books (Zahavi, 2003), and provides references for the works he considers decisive on this issue). He shows, instead, that if the East coast interpretation is correct, then Husserl is not so much of an archetypal internalist after all.
According to Zahavi and the East coast interpretation, the noema is not an extraordinary (i.e. abstract) object. It is not a concept, or a sense, or a propositional content. It is an ordinary object, but considered in an extraordinary (phenomenological) attitude. There is not an ontological difference between the object and the noema, but a structural difference only recognised post reduction. Thus, the reduction does not shift our focus from worldly objects to intra-mental representational (i.e. semantic) content of some sort, via which an act is directed to the aforementioned worldly objects. No, the reduction reveals that consciousness is correlated with worldly objects which themselves bear the content that is presented in intentional acts (83-84).
Zahavi then discusses that the West coast critique of the East coast interpretation would align Husserl with modern day disjunctivism, because of the trouble in accounting for non-veridical experiences like hallucinations. In short, if perception is just of ordinary objects as the East coast interpretation maintains, and there is no internal representational mediator (as disjunctivists agree), then what accounts for the difference between veridical and non-veridical experiences which seem indistinguishable?
Zahavi observes that Husserl distinguishes between two experiences which contain objects that seem the same, but are not. Thus, if I look at an object, and then the object is replaced unbeknownst to me as I close my eyes, then even though upon opening my eyes I think my perception is of the same object, Husserl makes a distinction between the two perceptions, because the object they intend are not identical. Thus, an experience in which an existing object and a seemingly existing (but hallucinatory) object are given are not identical either, even if they seem so. This response is paired with the more experientially based point that hallucinations and perceptions do not, in fact, ever seem the same. A perceptual experience is one which is given within a horizon that unfolds over time, and is intersubjectively verifiable. Hallucinations do not meet these experiential criterions (87-88).
These passages contain convincing arguments for Husserl’s position that could be brought to bear on the contemporary debate between conjunctivists and disjunctivists, but ignore recent work by Overgaard. Overgaard claims that “Husserl believes illusions and hallucinations can be indistinguishable from genuine, veridical perceptions. Husserl grants ‘the possibility of an exactly correspondent illusion’ (Hua XIX/1, 458 ), and maintains that ‘differences of […] veridical and delusive perception, do not affect the internal, purely descriptive (or phenomenological) character of perception’ (Hua XIX/1, 358 )” (Overgaard, 2018, 36).
Zahavi spends some time recounting various passages which are favoured by the East and West coast schools respectively. He lends his support to Fink’s interpretation, according to which the noema can be considered in both a transcendental and psychological context, and he claims that the fault of the West coast school is taking it solely in the latter. Importantly, he says that grasping the transcendental rendition of the noema is predicated on a proper understanding of the transcendental aspects of the reduction. The transcendental function of the reduction is to collapse the distinction between the reality and being of worldly objects and their “constituted validity and significance” (92). It is the West coast, overly psychological reading of the reduction as an internalist form of methodological solipsism which leads them to an internalist rendering of the noema as an intra psychic representational entity.
During the discussion of the noema, the inconsistency and lack of clarity concerning Husserl’s own work on this topic lurks in the background. The simple fact is, Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is sometimes unclear, on either the West or East coast interpretation, and leaves many questions unanswered. Zahavi acknowledges this when he discusses Bernet’s article that outlines “no fewer than three different concepts of the noema” (93). At this point, Zahavi toys with the conciliatory idea that perhaps there is support for both the East and West Coast reading. What Zahavi decides is that we should seek Husserl’s mature view, and one which coheres with the rest of his ideas. However, perhaps this affords Husserl too much charity; I suspect an outsider to Husserlian phenomenology would conclude as much. Perhaps the correct conclusion is that Husserl’s doctrine of the noema is confused.
Either way, Zahavi concludes that, if internalism is defined as the theory that our access to the world is mediated and conditioned by internal representations, then we can conclude Husserl is not an internalist (94), assuming one follows Zahavi’s interpretive approach to the reduction and the noema. If the reduction is seen clearly, and the distinction between objects in the world and noemata is partially collapsed, it cannot be maintained that the subject who intends a noema is cocooned in their own internal representational prison which is disjointed from the world. For Husserl, objects/meanings are actually in the world, and correlated with consciousness, which is a centre for disclosure (94).
- Internalism vs. Externalism, Part 2.
The next objection Zahavi addresses is that the foregoing discussion cannot be reconciled with the fact that Husserl’s is a self-confessed transcendental idealist, and ergo an internalist. Thus, like much of the book, we return to the theme of attempting to unravel exactly what Husserl’s transcendental idealism amounts to. In this section, Zahavi explores two crucial aspects to this problem: 1) understanding the constitutive relationship. 2) Understanding key passages from Ideas 1. My review will end with a discussion of these points.
Regarding the first point, Zahavi’s thinks that we should divorce the notion of constitutive dependence from substance metaphysics. The orld does not depend on one type of substance or another for its constitution. For Husserl, the world does not supervene or reduce to some other type of substance, but depends on being known. In this sense, transcendental “idealism is not participating in… the debate between monists and dualists. Its adversary is not materialism, but objectivism” (102). In the end of this discussion, Zahavi seems also suggests that there is an bidirectional constitutive correlation between consciousness and world (102), something he again suggests in latter passages concerning the factical embeddedness of consciousness (section 4.4). In this sense, Husserl’s thesis of constitution is less internalist than might be assumed, as the world constitutes consciousness as much as vice versa.
Zahavi then turns his attention to discussing the passages in sections 47-55 of Ideas 1 which contain some of Husserl’s most strident commitments to idealism. He mentions the notorious section 49, wherein Husserl claims that consciousness subsists after the annihilation of the world. How are we to square this with Husserl’s purported externalism? Zahavi argues that the best way to interpret this passage is that it expresses Husserl’s commitment to two theses: firstly, that some form of consciousness is non-intentional and, secondly, it is the intentional form of consciousness which is “world involving”, i.e. inextricably correlated with the world. Thus, if the world were annihilated, then intentional consciousness would cease, but if consciousness per se is divorced from intentional consciousness, then some form of consciousness could survive this cessation. So, Husserl can maintain that some form of consciousness is ‘externalised’, whilst another form of consciousness is independent from world experience.
Zahavi then turns to Husserl’s claim (found in section 54) that the being of consciousness is absolute, whilst the being of the world is only ever relative. How can we reconcile this with an externalism that avoids affirming consciousness at the expense of the reality of the world? Zahavi’s controversially rejects the traditional interpretation of this passage, according to which in making this claim Husserl means that consciousness is given absolutely and not via adumbrations, unlike spatial objects which are always adumbrated. Zahavi claims that this reading “falls short” (105), but (surprisingly) never mentions how.
Zahavi’s alternate reading is that Husserl most often talks about the absolute in the context of inner time consciousness. Zahavi claims that the absoluteness of temporal consciousness is intimately linked with the prereflectiveness of consciousness, and that we ought to interpret Husserl’s comments concerning the absolute being of consciousness to mean that consciousness is always prereflectively given. Zahavi is right that sometimes Husserl speaks of the absolute in this context. But this is not really the context in which the passage in question in Ideas 1 occurs.
In section 42 and 44 of Ideas 1, Husserl explicitly connects modes of givenness (i.e. adumbrated vs. non-adumbrated) with modes of being (i.e. contingent vs. absolute). For example, he says that every perception of a mental process is “a simple seeing of something that is (or can become) perceptually given as something absolute” (Husserl, 1983, 95). Note the phraseology: given as absolute. In section 54, Husserl states that transcendental consciousness survives even after psychic life has been dissolved and annulled. The central contrast which Husserl makes in this passage is that even intentional psychological life, and the life of the Ego, is relative when compared to pure or absolute nature of transcendental consciousness. Zahavi is right that Husserl may here may be thinking of the prereflective givenness of the absolute temporal flow. But Husserl does not name what remains after consciousness has been divorced from psychological egological life. He nowhere here mentions concepts like the temporal stream and prereflective consciousness.
So, another parsimonious interpretation is that Husserl talks about the absolute in two contexts, one relating to the connection between modes of givenness and modes of being, and one relating to the different strata of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness. Now, one might argue that Husserl ultimately sees one context as foundational for the other. In fact, Zahavi has shown elsewhere that Husserl certainly thinks that the capacity to reflect presupposes prereflective consciousness, and in Ideas 1 Husserl says that the “‘absolute’ which we have brought about by the reduction… [i.e. pure consciousness] has its source in what is ultimately and truly absolute”, i.e. temporal flow (Husserl, 1983, 192) . However, Husserl then notes the current discussion has thus far “remained silent” concerning this ultimate absolute, and that we can, for now, “leave out of account the enigma of consciousness of time” (Ibid, 194), barring a cursory account of the threefold structure of temporality. And so, it’s difficult to see how we should read the passages in section 54 as concerning the absoluteness of temporality, as Husserl explicit directs us away from this theme in Ideas 1. And, I don’t think we can direct discussions about reflective givenness to a discussion of temporality (and on to prereflectiveness) without further ado, as Zahavi seems to do here.
I just don’t think the selected passage from Ideas 1 is the best way to get to a discussion of temporal consciousness and prereflective givenness in relation to the concept of the absolute. Zahavi chooses to take this direction because he is concerned that the traditional reading of these passages puts Husserl in the position of a metaphysical or absolute idealist (105). My final point is that this need not be the case as, even on the traditional reading, Husserl’s talk of the ‘absolute’ in Ideas 1 is not leading to an ontological claim. Because, the thesis that consciousness is given absolutely in reflective acts could just as well be labelled a descriptive one, as it rests on a distinction between modes of access to states of consciousness.
Husserl, E. (1983). Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. (F. Kersten, Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Overgaard, S. (2018). Perceptual Error, Conjunctivism, and Husserl. Husserl Studies, 34(1), 25-45. doi:10.1007/s10743-017-9215-2.
Zahavi, D. (2003). Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Zahavi, D. (2005). Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.
This is a book long overdue. Other authors have made more or less recent phenomenological and transcendental-idealist contributions to the philosophy of mathematics: Dieter Lohmar (1989), Richard Tieszen (2005) and Mark van Atten (2007) are perhaps the most important ones. Ten years is a sufficiently wide gap to welcome any new work. Yet da Silva’s contribution stands out for one reason: it is unique in the emphasis it puts, not so much, or not only, on the traditional problems of the philosophy of mathematics (ontological status of mathematical objects, mathematical knowledge, and so on), but on the problem of the application of mathematics. The author’s chief aim – all the other issues dealt with in the book are subordinated to it – is to give a transcendental phenomenological and idealist solution to the evergreen problem of how it is that we can apply mathematics to the world and actually get things right – particularly mathematics developed in complete isolation from mundane, scientific or technological efforts.
Chapter 1 is an introduction. In Chapters 2 and 3, da Silva sets up his tools. Chapters 4 to 6 are about particular aspects of mathematics: numbers, sets and space. The bulk of the overall case is then developed in Chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 9, “Final Conclusions”, is in fact a critique of positions common in the analytic philosophy of mathematics.
Chapter 2, “Phenomenology”, is where da Silva prepares the notions he will then deploy throughout the book. Concepts like intentionality, intuition, empty intending, transcendental (as opposed to psychological) ego, and so on, are presented. They are all familiar from the phenomenological literature, but da Silva does a good job explaining their motivation and highlighting their interconnections. The occasional (or perhaps not so occasional) polemic access may be excused. The reader expecting arguments for views or distinctions, however, will be disappointed: da Silva borrows liberally from Husserl, carefully distinguishing his own positions from the orthodoxy but stating, rather than defending, them. This creates the impression that, at least to an extent, he is preaching to the converted. As a result, if you are looking for reasons to endorse idealism, or to steer clear of it, this may not be the book for you.
Be that as it may, the main result of the chapter is, unsurprisingly, transcendental idealism. This is the claim that, barring the metaphysical presuppositions unwelcome to the phenomenologist, there is nothing more to the reality of objects than their being “objective”, i.e., public. ‘Objectivation’, as da Silva puts it, ‘is an intentional experience performed by a community of egos operating cooperatively as intentional subjects. … Presentifying to oneself the number 2 as an objective entity is presentifying it and simultaneously conceiving it as a possible object of intentional experience to alter egos (the whole community of intentional egos)’ (26-27). This is true of ideal objects, as in the author’s example, but also of physical objects (the primary type of intentional experience will then be perception).
There are two other important views stated and espoused in the chapter. One is the Husserlian idea that a necessary condition for objective existence is the lack of cancellation, due to intentional conflict, of the relevant object. Given the subject matter of the book, the most important corollary of this idea is that ideal objects, if they are to be objective, at the very least must not give rise to inconsistencies. For example, the set of all ordinals does not objectively exist, because it gives rise to the Burali-Forti paradox. The other view, paramount to the overall case of the book (I will return to it later), is that for a language to be material (or materially determined) is for its non-logical constants to denote materially determined entities (59). If a language is not material, it is formal.
Chapter 3 is about logic. Da Silva attempts a transcendental clarification of what he views as the trademark principles of classical logic: identity, contradiction and bivalence. The most relevant to the book is the third, and the problem with it is: how can we hold bivalence – for every sentence p, either p or not-p – and a phenomenological-idealist outlook on reality? For bivalence seems to require a world that is, as da Silva puts it, ‘objectively complete’: such that any well-formed sentence is in principle verifiable against it. Yet how can the idealist’s world be objectively complete? Surely if a sentence is about a state of affairs we currently have no epistemic access to (e.g., the continuous being immediately after the discrete) there just is no fact of the matter as to whether the sentence is true or false: for there is nothing beyond what we, as transcendental intersubjectivity, have epistemic access to.
Da Silva’s first move is to put the following condition on the meaningfulness of sentences: a sentence is meaningful if and only if it represents a possible fact (75). The question, then, becomes whether possible facts can always be checked against the sentences representing them, at least in principle. The answer, for da Silva, turns on the idea, familiar from Husserl, that intentional performances constitute not merely objects, but objects with meanings. This is also true of more structured objectivities, such as states of affairs and complexes thereof – a point da Silva makes in Chapter 2. The world (reality) is such a complex: it is ‘a maximally consistent domain of facts’ (81). The world, then, is intentionally posited (by transcendental intersubjectivity) with a meaning. To hold bivalence as a logical principle means, transcendentally, to include ‘objective completeness’ in the intentional meaning (posited by the community of transcendental egos) of the world. In other words, to believe that sentences have a truth value independent of our epistemic access to the state of affairs they represent is to believe that every possible state of affairs is in principle verifiable, in intuition or in non-intuitive forms of intentionality. This, of course, does not justify the logical principle: it merely gives it a transcendental sense. Yet this is exactly what da Silva is interested in, and all he thinks we can do. Once we refuse to assume the objective completeness of the world in a metaphysical sense, what we do is to assume it as a ‘transcendental presupposition’ or ‘hypothesis’. In the author’s words:
How can we be sure that any proposition can be confronted with the facts without endorsing metaphysical presuppositions about reality and our power to access reality in intuitive experiences? … By a transcendental hypothesis. By respecting the rules of syntactic and semantic meaning, the ego determines completely a priori the scope of the domain of possible situations – precisely those expressed by meaningful propositions – which are, then, hypothesized to be ideally verifiable. (83)
Logical principles express transcendental hypotheses; transcendental hypotheses spell out intentional meaning. … The a priori justification of logical principles depends on which experiences are meant to be possible in principle, which depends on how the domain of experience is intentionally meant to be. (73)
There is, I believe, a worry regarding da Silva’s definition of meaningfulness in terms of possible situations: it seems to be in tension with the apparent inability of modality to capture fine-grained (or hyper-) intensional distinction and therefore, ultimately, meaning (for a non-comprehensive overview of the field of intensional semantics, see Fox and Lappin 2005). True, since possible situations are invoked to define the meaningfulness, not the meaning, of sentences, there is no overt incompatibility; yet it would be odd to define meaningfulness in terms of possible situations, and meaning in a completely different way.
Chapter 4, “Numbers”, has two strands. The first deals with another evergreen of philosophy: the ontological status of numbers and mathematical objects in general. Da Silva’s treatment is interesting and his results, as far as I can see, entirely Husserlian: numbers and other mathematical objects behave like platonist entities except that they do not exist independently of the intentional performances that constitute them. One consequence is that mathematical objects have a transcendental history which can and should be unearthed to fully understand their nature. The phenomenological approach is unique in its attention to this interplay between history and intentional constitution, and it is to da Silva’s credit, I believe, that it should figure so prominently in the book. Ian Hacking was right when he wrote, a few years back, that ‘probably phenomenology has offered more than analytic philosophy’ to understand ‘how mathematics became possible for a species like ours in a world like this one’ (Hacking 2014). Da Silva’s work fits the pattern.
And yet I have a few reservations, at least about the treatment (I will leave the results to readers). For one thing, there is no mention of unorthodox items such as choice sequences. Given da Silva’s rejection of intuitionism in Chapter 3, perhaps this is unsurprising. Yet not endorsing is one thing, not even mentioning is quite another. I cannot help but think the author missed an opportunity to contribute to one of the most engaging debates in the phenomenology of mathematics of the last decade (van Atten’s Brouwer Meets Husserl is from 2007). Da Silva’s seemingly difficult relationship with intuitionism is also connected with another conspicuous absence from the book. At p. 118 da Silva looks into the relations between our intuition of the continuum and its mathematical construction in terms of ‘tightly packed punctual moments’, and argues that the former does not support the latter (which should then be motivated on different grounds). He cites Weyl as the main purveyor of an alternative model – which he might well be. But complete silence about intuitionist analysis seems frankly excessive.
A final problem with da Silva’s presentation is his dismissal of logicism as a philosophy of, and a foundational approach to, mathematics. ‘Of course,’ he writes, ‘Frege’s project of providing arithmetic with logical foundations collapsed completely in face of logical contradiction (Russell’s paradox)’ (103). The point is not merely historical: ‘Frege’s reduction of numbers to classes of equinumerous concepts is an unnecessary artifice devised exclusively to satisfy logicist parti-pris … That this caused the doom of his projects indicates the error of the choice’. I would have expected at least some mention of either Russell’s own brand of logicism (designed, with type theory, to overcome the paradox), or more recent revivals, such as Bob Hale’s and Crispin Wright’s Neo-Fregeanism (starting with Wright 1983) or George Bealer’s less Fregean work in Quality and Concept (1982). None of these has suffered the car crash Frege’s original programme did, and all of them are still, at least in principle, on the market. True, da Silva attacks logicism on other grounds, too, and may argue that, in those respects, the new brands are just as vulnerable as the old. Yet, that is not what he does; he just does not say anything.
The second strand of the chapter, more relevant to the overall case of the book, develops the idea that numbers may be regarded in two ways: materially and formally. The two lines of investigation are not totally unrelated, and indeed some of da Silva’s arguments for the latter claim are historical. The claim itself is as follow. According to da Silva, numbers are essentially related to quantity: ‘A number is the ideal form that each member of a class of equinumerous quantitative forms indifferently instantiates’, and ‘two numbers are the same if they are instantiable as equinumerical quantitative forms’ (104). Yet some types of numbers are more or less detached from quantity: if in the case of the negative integers, for example, the link with quantity is thin, when it comes to the complex numbers it is gone altogether. Complex numbers are numbers only in the sense that they behave operationally like ones – but they are not the real (no pun intended) thing. Da Silva is completely right in saying that it was this problem that moved the focus of Husserl’s reflections in the 1890s from arithmetic to general problems of semiotic, logic and knowledge. The way he cashes out the distinction is in terms of a material and a formal way to consider numbers. Genuine, ‘quantitative’ numbers are material numbers. Numbers in a wider sense, and thus including the negative and the complex, are numbers in a formal sense. Since, typically, the mathematician is interested in numbers either to calculate or because they want to study their relations (with one another or with something else), they will view numbers formally – i.e., at bottom, from the point of view of operations and structure – rather than materially.
Thus, the main theoretical result of the chapter is that, inasmuch as mathematics is concerned with numbers, it is ‘essentially a formal science’ (120). In Chapter 7, da Silva will put forward an argument to the effect that mathematics as a whole is essentially a formal science. This, together with the idea, also anticipated in Chapter 4, that the formal nature of mathematics ‘explains its methodological flexibility and wide applicability’, is the core insight of the whole book. But more about it later.
Chapter 5 is about sets. In particular, da Silva wants to transcendentally justify the ZFC axioms. This includes a (somewhat hurried) genealogy, roughly in the style of Experience and Judgement, of ‘mathematical sets’ from empirical collections and ‘empirical sets’. The intentional operations involved are collecting and several levels of formalisation. The details of the account have no discernible bearing on the overarching argument, so I will leave them to one side. It all hinges, however, on the idea that sets are constituted by the transcendental subject through the collecting operation, and this is what does the main work in the justification. This makes da Silva’s view very close to the iterative conception (as presented for example in Boolos 1971); yet he only mentions it once and in passing (146). Be that as it may, it is an interesting feature of da Silva’s story that it turns controversial axioms such as Choice into sugar, while tame ones such as Empty Set and Extensionality become contentious.
Empty Set, for example, is justified with an account, which da Silva attributes to Husserl, of the constitution of empty sets that I found fascinating but incomplete. Empty sets are clearly a hard case for the phenomenological account: because, as one might say, since collections are empty by definition, no collecting is in fact involved. Or is it? Consider, da Silva says, the collection of the proper divisors of 17:
Any attempt at actually collecting [them] ends up in collecting nothing, the collecting-intention is frustrated. Now, … Husserl sees the frustration in collecting the divisors of 17 as the intuitive presentation of the empty collection of the divisors of 17. So empty collections exist. (148)
It is a further question, and da Silva does not consider it, whether this story accounts for the uniqueness of the empty set (assuming he thinks the empty set is indeed unique, which, as will appear, is not obvious to me). Are collecting-frustration experiences all equal? Or is there a frustration experience for the divisors of 17, one for the divisors of 23, one for the round squares, and so on? If they are all equal, does that warrant the conclusion that the empty sets they constitute are in fact identical? If they are different, what warrants that conclusion? Of course, an option would be: it follows from Extensionality. Yet, I venture, that solution would let the phenomenologist down somewhat. More seriously, da Silva even seems to reject Extensionality (and thus perhaps the notion that there is just one empty set). At least: he claims that there is ‘no a priori reason for preferring’ an extensional to an intensional approach to set theory, but that if we take ‘the ego and its set-constituting experiences’ seriously we ought to be intensionalists (150).
Chapters 6 is about space and its mathematical representations – ‘a paradigmatic case of the relation between mathematics and empirical reality’ (181). It is where da Silva deals the most with perception and the way it relates with mathematical objects. For the idealist, there are at least four sorts of space: perceptual, physical, mathematical-physical and purely formal. The intentional action required to constitute them is increasingly complex, objectivising, idealising and formalising. Perceptual space is subjective, i.e., private as opposed to public. It is also ‘continuous, non-homogeneous, simply connected, tridimensional, unbounded and approximately Euclidean’ (163). Physical space is the result of the intersubjective constitution of a shared spatial framework by harmonization of subjective spatial experiences. This constitution is a ‘non-verbal, mostly tacit compromise among cooperating egos implicit in common practices’ (167). Unlike its perceptual counterpart, physical space has no centre. It also admits of metric, rather than merely proto-metric, relations. It is also ‘everywhere locally’, but not globally, Euclidean (168). The reason is that physical space is public, measurable but based merely on experience (and more or less crude methods of measurement) – not on models.
We start to see models of physical space when we get to mathematical-physical space. In the spirit of Husserl’s Krisis, da Silva is very keen on pointing out that mathematical-physical space, although it does indeed represent physical space, does not reveal what physical space really is. That it should do so, is a naturalistic misunderstanding. In the author’s words:
At best, physical space is proto-mathematical and can only become properly mathematical by idealization, i.e., an intentional process of exactification. However, and this is an important remark, idealization is not a way of uncovering the “true” mathematical skeleton of physical space, which is not at its inner core mathematical. (169)
Mathematical-physical space is what is left of the space we live in – the space of the Lebenswelt, if you will – in a representation designed to make it exact (for theoretical or practical purposes). Importantly, physical space ‘sub-determines’ mathematical-physical space: the latter is richer than the former, and to some extent falsifies what it seeks to represent. Euclidean geometry is paradigmatic:
The Euclidean representation of physical space, despite its intuitive foundations, is an ideal construct. It falsifies to non-negligible extent perceptual features of physical space and often attributes to it features that are not perceptually discernible. (178)
The next step is purely formal representations of space. These begin by representing physical space, but soon focus on its formal features alone. We are then able to do analytic geometry, for example, and claim that, ‘mathematically, nothing is lost’ (180). This connects with da Silva’s view that mathematics is a formal science and, in a way, provides both evidence for and a privileged example of it. If you are prepared to agree that doing geometry synthetically or analytically is, at bottom, the same thing, then you are committed to explain why that is so. And da Silva’s story is, I believe, a plausible candidate.
Chapter 7 is where it all happens. First, and crucially, da Silva defends the view that mathematics is formal rather than material in character. I should mention straight away that his argument, a three-liner, is somewhat underdeveloped. Yet it is very clear. To say that mathematics is essentially formal is, for da Silva, to say that mathematics can only capture the formal aspects of reality (as the treatment of space is meant to show). The reason is as follows. Theories are made up of symbols, which can be logical or non-logical. The non-logical symbols may, in principle, be variously interpreted. A theory whose non-logical symbols are interpreted is, recall, material rather than formal. Therefore, one could argue, number theory should count as material. Yet, so da Silva’s reasoning goes, ‘fixing the reference of the terms of an interpreted theory is not a task for the theory itself’ (186). The theory, in other words, cannot capture the interpretation of its non-logical constant: that is a meta-theoretical operation. But then mathematical theories cannot capture the nature, the specificity of its objects even when these are material.
That is the master argument, as well as the crux of the whole book. For it follows from it that mathematics is essentially about structure: objects in general and relations in which they stand. This, for da Silva, does not mean that mathematics is simply not about material objects. That would be implausible. Rather, the claim is that even when a mathematical theory is interpreted, or has a privileged interpretation, and is therefore about a specific (‘materially filled’) structure, it does not itself capture the interpretation (the fixing of it) – and thus it is really formal. Some mathematical theories are, however, formal in a stricter sense: they are concerned with structures that are kept uninterpreted. These are purely formal structures. Regarding space, Hilbert’s geometry is a good example.
Da Silva’s solution to the problem of the applicability of mathematics is thus the following. Mathematics is an intentional construction capable of representing the formal aspects of other intentional constructions – mathematics itself and reality. Moreover, it is capable of representing only the formal aspects of mathematics and reality. It should then be no surprise, much less a problem, that any non-mathematical domain can be represented mathematically: every domain, insofar as it is an intentional construction, has formal aspects – which are the only ones that count from an operational and structural standpoint.
This has implications for the philosophy of mathematics. On the ground of his main result, da Silva defends a phenomenological-idealist sort of structuralism, according to which structures are the privileged objects of mathematics. Yet his structuralism is neither in re nor ante rem. Not in re, because structures, even when formal, are objects in their own right. Not ante rem, because structures are intentional constructs, and thus not ontologically independent. They depend on intentionality, but also on the material structures on whose basis they are constituted through formalisation. This middle-ground stance is typical of phenomenology and transcendental idealism.
I have already said what the last two chapters – 8 and 9 – are about. The latter is a collection of exchanges with views in the analytic philosophy of mathematics. They do not contribute to the general case of the book, so I leave them to prospective readers. The former is an extension of the results of Chapter 7 to science in general. A couple of remarks will be enough here. Indeed, when the reader gets to the chapter, all bets are off: by then, da Silva has put in place everything he needs, and the feeling is that Chapter 8, while required, is after all mere execution. This is not to understate da Silva’s work. It is a consequence of his claim (217) that the problem of the applicability of mathematics to objective reality, resulting in science, just is, at bottom, the problem of the applicability of mathematics to itself – which the author has already treated in Chapter 7. Under transcendental idealism, objective, physical reality, just like mathematical reality, is an intersubjective intentional construct. This construct, being structured, and thus having formal aspects to it, ‘is already proto-mathematical’ and, ‘by being mathematically represented, becomes fully mathematical’ (226). The story is essentially the same.
Yet it is only fair to mention that, while in this connection it would have been easy merely to repeat Husserl (the approach is after all pure Krisis), that is not what da Silva does. He rather distances himself from Husserl in at least two respects. First of all, he rejects what we may call the primacy of intuition in Husserl’s epistemology of mathematics and science. Second, he devotes quite a bit of space to the heuristic role of mathematics in science – made possible, so the author argues, by the formal nature of mathematical representation (234).
As a final remark, I want to stress again what seems to me the chief problem of the book. Da Silva’s aim is to give a transcendental-idealist solution to the problem of the applicability of mathematics. Throughout the chapters, he does a good job spelling out the details of the project. Yet there is no extensive discussion of why one should endorse transcendental idealism in the first place. True, a claim the author repeatedly makes is that idealism is the only approach that does not turn the problem into a quagmire. While the reader may be sympathetic with that view (as I am), da Silva offers no full-blown argument for it. As a result, the book is unlikely to build bridges between phenomenologists and philosophers of mathematics of a more analytic stripe. Perhaps that was never one of da Silva’s aims. Still, I believe, it is something of a shame.
Boolos, G. 1971. “The Iterative Conception of Set”. Journal of Philosophy 68 (8): 215-231.
Bealer, G. 1982. Quality and Concept. Oxford: OUP.
Fox, C. and Lappin, S. 2005. Foundations of Intensional Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hacking, I. 2014. Why is there Philosophy of Mathematics at all? Cambridge: CUP.
Lohmar, D. 1989. Phänomenologie der Mathematik: Elemente enier phänomenologischen Aufklärung der mathematischen Erkenntnis nach Husserl. Dodrecht: Kluwer.
Tieszen, R. 2005. Phenomenology, Logic, and the Philosophy of Mathematics. Cambridge: CUP.
Van Atten, M. 2007. Brouwer Meets Husserl: On the Phenomenology of Choice Sequences. Dodrecht: Springer.
Wright, C. 1983. Frege’s Conception of Numbers as Objects. Aberdeen: AUP.
 Unless impossible worlds are brought in – but as far as I can see that option is foreign to da Silva’s outlook.
 The notion of quantitative form is at the heart of Husserl’s own account of numbers in Philosophy of Arithmetic – and it is to da Silva’s credit that he takes Husserl’s old work seriously and accommodates into an up-to-date phenomenological-idealist framework.
Des géants ou des moulins ? A propos de l’ambiguïté de l’intentionnalité en phénoménologie.
Une manière d’entrer dans le nouveau livre de Denis Seron est d’emprunter le chemin d’un des problèmes centraux et classiques en philosophie de l’esprit et du langage, problème qui sert de pivot au déploiement de son argumentation : le problème de représentations sans objets, connu en philosophie du langage sous la forme russellienne du problème des énoncés singuliers existentiels négatifs. Intuitivement, le problème se formule ainsi [i] : lorsque je dis, par exemple, « Le Père Noël n’existe pas », je profère bien un énoncé doté de signification, mon énoncé et la représentation qui le sous-tend se rapportent à quelque chose, et tout le monde me comprendra s’il m’arrive de dire une telle chose, bien que mon énoncé soit sans référence. On me comprend, et pourtant, je ne parle de rien. Tout se passe comme si je parlais bien de quelque chose, puisque ce que je dis a un sens, alors que je ne parle pas de quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde (il n’y a pas hors de moi un référent « Père Noël » dont cela a du sens de parler). Or, notre conception naïve du langage, reprise par les empiristes de Hobbes à Stuart-Mill, indexe le sens d’une proposition sur sa référence : dire quelque chose qui a du sens, c’est faire en sorte qu’à notre discours corresponde un état de chose auquel il est adéquat. Or, avec l’exemple du Père Noël, ce n’est pas le cas. Comment est-il donc possible qu’un énoncé sans référence soit doté de sens et de quoi cet énoncé, puisqu’il est pourvu de sens, peut-il bien parler ? On dit bien, en présence d’un énoncé dépourvu de signification, que l’on ne voit pas de quoi il parle, et donc que son objet, sa référence, n’est pas clairement défini. Ce problème se retrouve dans toutes les attitudes propositionnelles qui peuvent impliquer un irréel : lorsque je dis que « je m’imagine le Père Noël », ou alors même dans les illusions ou les comportements hallucinatoires (« j’ai cru un instant voir un spectre » etc.). Ici aussi, nous comprenons ces propositions, et pourtant elles font référence à une certaine forme de non-être.
La stratégie de Denis Seron consiste à réinvestir une des solutions données à ce problème impliquant le recours à l’intentionnalité et à tenter en retour une clarification des concepts qui appartiennent à la panoplie intentionnaliste, afin d’en retirer une conceptualité phénoménologique claire et une définition plus précise de la phénoménologie (il faudrait dire que l’allure logique de l’argumentation ici mise en œuvre est du type : « si l’intentionnalité doit vraiment permettre de répondre au problème des représentations sans objets, alors il faut qu’elle comporte telle ou telle détermination »).
On peut apporter deux types de solutions à ce problème : d’abord, la solution que l’on peut qualifier de sémantique, d’inspiration frégéenne ou russellienne, et qui consiste à soutenir que le langage peut parfois être trompeur, puisqu’en réalité, derrière les formulations paradoxales du type « X n’existe pas », nous trouvons une structure logique saine et non aporétique. Russell montrera , par exemple, qu’il est d’abord nécessaire de distinguer être et existence , que quelque chose peut être sans nécessairement exister (un concept est quelque chose mais n’a pas d’existence dans le temps et l’espace), puis que les énoncés sans objets peuvent tous se traduire sous la forme de concepts sans subsomption ou extension, d’un concept vide d’instanciation : dire « Pégase n’existe pas », cela revient en fait simplement à affirmer que sous le concept de Pégase ne tombe aucun objet, présupposant par là la distinction entre sens et référence que l’on doit à Frege[ii]. Ainsi, affirmer que Pégase n’existe pas, revient bien à parler de quelque chose : nous parlons du concept « Pégase » et nous affirmons qu’il n’existe pas d’individus y correspondant.
Denis Seron critique explicitement cette conception sémantique ou conceptualiste, et l’objection est de taille, puisque ces conceptions ne parviennent pas à rendre compte des hallucinations ou même d’attitudes propositionnelles comme l’imagination (il est peu probable que lorsque nous imaginions Pégase, nous ne faisions qu’en convoquer le concept). Denis Seron se revendique au contraire d’une approche héritée de Brentano et Husserl, d’une approche intentionnaliste, qui se réfère à une compréhension bien précise de ce que l’on nomme les contenus intentionnels. En un sens, celle-ci pourrait d’abord se formuler comme suit , en revenant à Husserl : «Si […] l’on demande comment il faut entendre que le non-existant ou le transcendant puisse avoir valeur d’objet intentionnel […] il n’y a à cela pas d’autre réponse que […] : l’objet est un objet intentionnel, cela signifie qu’il y a un acte avec une intention de caractère déterminé qui […] constitue précisément ce que nous appelons l’intention dirigée vers l’objet»[iii]. C’est donc sur la voie d’un retour à Husserl et Brentano qu’il nous faut suivre notre auteur pour en apprécier la richesse et l’originalité.
- Le problème de l’intentionnalité : le contenu intentionnel n’est pas l’objet extramental
Denis Seron rappelle d’abord l’origine et les présupposés fondamentaux de toute théorie intentionnaliste de l’esprit[iv]. Le terme d’intentionnalité est originellement un terme de scolastique médiévale, repris par Brentano dans un but précis : lutter contre la conception empiriste et dite « atomiste » de l’esprit. Si nous partons du principe que l’esprit est constitué de contenus mentaux que l’on nommera des représentations, les représentations que nous vivons effectivement sont des contenus complexes que nous appelons des contenus propositionnels,[v] et qui se caractérisent par le fait d’être toujours en lien avec le monde, au sujet de ce qui s’y passe. Ainsi , comme le rappelle Denis Seron, désirer, croire, penser, ce n’est pas simplement avoir conscience de désirer, de croire ou de penser, mais c’est bien plutôt désirer que quelque chose se réalise dans le monde, croire que quelque chose a lieu, penser à quelqu’un ou quelque chose. Autrement dit, si nos représentations sont intentionnelles, cela signifie qu’elles sont toujours représentations de quelque chose. L’auteur rappelle très clairement la ligne de fracture entre la conception intentionnelle et la conception atomiste de l’esprit. Pour des empiristes comme Hume, Hobbes ou Stuart Mill, le caractère intentionnel des représentations est accidentel et dérivé : pour eux , les représentations qui peuvent être intentionnelles sont des complexes formés d’éléments simples non-intentionnels, les sensations, qui sont le fruit d’un rapport causal, et donc non sémantiquement motivé, avec le monde. Il n’y aura donc que certaines représentations qui pourront prétendre à mordre sur le monde, mais originellement le flux mental est fermé sur lui-même, composé d’éléments simples sans rapport avec les choses. Pour Brentano, au contraire, tout contenu mental est un « acte intentionnel »[vi], c’est-à-dire qu’il est intrinsèquement au sujet, à propos de quelque chose d’autre que lui-même.
Après ces éclaircissements, si nous en revenons au problème des représentations ou énoncés sans objets, il nous semble d’abord qu’une telle théorie non seulement ne peut pas nous aider à résoudre ce problème, mais bien d’avantage, qu’elle nous plonge dans une perplexité plus grande encore. En effet, si nous reprenons la question de Denis Seron lui-même au début du second chapitre : comment des représentations sans objets (fiction, hallucination, illusion) sont-elles possibles, si toute représentation doit être intentionnelle, c’est-à-dire si toute représentation se définit intrinsèquement par la propriété d’être au sujet de quelque chose d’autre qu’elle ? nous conduirait à affirmer que celui qui voit un spectre ne voit rien (le spectre n’est pas présent en chair et en os devant lui) mais qu’ il doit bien voir quelque chose, puisque sa perception doit être intentionnelle. Tout le travail de Denis Seron , grâce aux avancées conceptuelles de Brentano et Husserl, montre non seulement que l’intentionnalité permet de répondre à cette question, mais qu’en retour cette question elle-même nous permet de mieux déterminer ce qu’est l’intentionnalité.
Reprenons l’exemple de l’hallucination, et soyons attentifs à sa grammaire. Soit l’exemple, repris ici, de Don Quichotte[vii] qui, sur la route de Puerto Làpice, voit des géants alors qu’il s’agit en réalité de moulins. En un sens, Sancho Panza a raison de rétorquer à Don Quichotte qu’il ne s’agit pas de géant mais bien de moulins, mais en un autre sens, Don Quichotte à raison de répondre à son tour qu’il voit bien des géants, et qu’il ne voit pas autre chose. Toute la force de la conception intentionnelle de Brentano, reprise par Denis Seron, est de nous permettre de maintenir ensemble les deux alternatives de ce dilemme et d’y séjourner assez longtemps pour le résoudre. Il va s’agir en réalité de faire apparaître l’ambiguïté de la grammaire de l’intentionnalité. En effet, l’argument clé est qu’il faut distinguer le fait qu’une représentation soit au sujet de ou à propos de, et le fait qu’elle soit en relation à ce à propos de quoi elle est. Autrement dit, l’internalisme de Brentano nous permet de distinguer le contenu intentionnel de la représentation et son objet. Une représentation peut être au sujet de X (avoir X comme contenu intentionnel) sans être en relation effective avec un X extra-mental (avoir X pour objet). La distinction entre le contenu intentionnel et l’objet est la pierre de touche de l’exposé de Denis Seron, il faut donc bien la comprendre : si le contenu intentionnel est une propriété de l’état mental intentionnel, il n’est pas une entité intermédiaire par laquelle serait médiatisé notre rapport au monde, il est lui aussi intrinsèquement mental et de la même étoffe que notre esprit, mais il oriente notre esprit vers quelque chose du monde sans être lui-même cette chose. On parlera alors d’une théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle, et il faudra la comprendre en termes d’apparence. Lorsque je dis par exemple que « la tache sur ma chemise m’apparaît comme bleue »[viii], je dis bien d’une part que ma représentation est au sujet de ma chemise et de la tache qui s’y trouve, je parle donc de quelque chose qui se trouve dans le monde, mais du fait de l’utilisation d’une grammaire de l’apparence, j’indique également que ma représentation n’a pas encore trouvé le chemin de sa référence, c’est-à-dire, précisément son objet. En disant qu’il me semble que la tache est bleue, je peux encore me tromper. Il est donc possible que ma représentation ait une direction, qu’elle concerne intentionnellement quelque chose, sans qu’elle soit en référence à un objet : elle peut avoir un contenu intentionnel sans pour autant être en relation à un objet existant en dehors d’elle-même (il faut noter que Denis Seron prends ici explicitement position pour une conception brentanienne, c’est-à-dire, intra-psychique de l’intentionnalité, à rebours de toute conception métaphysique de l’intentionnalité[ix], comme par exemple la conception heideggerienne qui établira que l’intentionnalité est transcendance, c’est-à-dire, relation au monde[x]).
- L’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel
Cette théorie de l’inclusion intentionnelle ne nous permet pas encore de voir comment Denis Seron résout le problème de l’hallucination : nous devons mieux saisir ce qu’il nomme l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du langage intentionnel . Pour ce faire, il faut distinguer l’intentionnalité à proprement parler et la conscience phénoménale. Cela revient à distinguer le contenu intentionnel visé par la conscience et la conscience de la visée de ce contenu : lorsque nous disons que « nous voyons un vase devant nous », d’une part, nous avons une conscience perceptuelle de ce vase, c’est-à-dire que notre état mental se dirige vers un objet, et si nous voyons effectivement le vase, nous sommes absorbés par lui dans une expérience directe, mais d’autre part, nous avons aussi conscience de percevoir le vase, conscience de notre propre perception, et si quelqu’un nous demandait « que fais-tu ? », nous pourrions sans difficulté lui répondre : « je regarde ce vase ». Pour le dire en termes sartriens, toute conscience non-positionnelle de soi est accompagnée d’une conscience pré-réflexive de soi[xi]. Notons ici que Seron reprend le contenu minimal du dénominateur commun à Brentano et Husserl[xii], à savoir, l’idée qu’il y va de l’essence même de la conscience que de se connaître (une conscience inconsciente est un monstre logique, comme un cercle carré), même si elle se connaît sur un plan pré-objectif et non encore représentatif.
Dans le cadre de la théorie non relationnelle ou encore de la conception adverbiale l’intentionnalité défendue par Denis Seron à la suite de Brentano, cette distinction entre conscience phénoménale et représentation intentionnelle est décisive pour répondre au problème des représentations sans objets. Si l’on reprend l’exemple célèbre de Brentano : « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes », il est très clair que ce qui est en question ici, ce n’est pas l’objet extra-mental « Centaure » avec lequel les poètes seraient en relation par le truchement d’une représentation cherchant une référence dans le monde, mais c’est bien plutôt un état mental intrinsèquement « à-propos-de-Centaure », et dont la conscience phénoménale permet de rendre compte, puisque lorsque j’imagine des centaures, j’ai conscience de les imaginer. Si bien que l’énoncé « Le centaure est une fiction des poètes » qui était encore problématique dans une conception métaphysique et relationnelle de l’intentionnalité (puisqu’il faudrait que le poète soit en relation avec le Centaure comme objet extra-mental), devient un simple énoncé concernant un état mental, dans lequel est inclus un contenu intentionnel, lui-même encore mental. L’objet auquel il est fait explicitement référence, c’est la représentation elle-même et non pas son objet extra-mental. Denis Seron propose de paraphraser l’exemple brentanien comme suit : « Il existe un état mental tel que des poètes sont dans cet état et qu’il a pour contenu intentionnel le centaure »[xiii]. Ainsi, la référence touche l’état mental intentionnel des poètes, et non pas son objet, ce qui serait absurde.
Il y a cependant certains contextes dans lesquels il est difficile de savoir si c’est l’état mental avec son contenu intentionnel qui est endossé[xiv], c’est-à-dire qui est tenu pour existant et prétend au rôle de référent, ou si c’est l’objet extra-mental. Si je dis : « j’imagine le Père Noël », il n’est pas difficile de savoir que ce qui est endossé, ce n’est pas l’existence du Père Noël, mais l’existence de mon « imagination-à-propos-du-Père-Noël » en tant qu’état mental intrinsèquement intentionnel. Dans le cadre du vocabulaire de l’apparence ou de l’hallucination, les comptes-rendus de l’expérience intentionnelle deviennent précisément ambigus. Si je dis que « la tache m’apparaît bleue », il n’est pas évident de savoir si je me situe sur le simple plan de l’apparence phénoménologique qui ne me permet de n’endosser que l’existence du contenu intentionnel pour moi, c’est-à-dire au sein de mon état mental, et cela sans prétention à mordre sur l’être effectif de la tache, ou si au contraire je prétends faire référence à la tache elle-même, de manière extra-mentale.
- In recto, in obliquo.
Nous voudrions attirer l’attention du lecteur sur une distinction très importante que l’on doit à Brentano, et qui, si elle est souvent oubliée, est bien rappelée et restituée dans toute sa richesse par Denis Seron. Il s’agit de la distinction entre le modus rectus et le modus obliquus[xv]. Elle nous permet de mieux thématiser l’ambiguïté intrinsèque du vocabulaire intentionnel et de tenir ensemble sa double aspectualité (le contenu intentionnel mental et la référence extra-mentale) : si je perçois qu’il pleut dehors et que je suis sûr que c’est bien le cas, alors on dira, d’après Brentano, qu’in recto je me réfère à la pluie comme objet avec lequel je suis en relation, et qu‘in obliquo je me réfère à l’état mental intentionnel qui vise la pluie, c’est-à-dire indirectement et non représentativement, mais par le biais de ma conscience phénoménale intra-mentale. Inversement, dans les cas où la référence est incertaine, comme par exemple si je crois simplement qu’il pleut , il faudra dire qu’in recto je me réfère d’abord à mon état mental, mais qu’in obliquo je vise, du fait de mon contenu intentionnel inclus dans mon état mental de croyance, quelque chose comme la pluie. Comme le dit Denis Seron : « La description phénoménologique in obliquo est ontologiquement réductible à la description psychologique in recto […] »[xvi], c’est-à-dire que lorsque l’on prétend référer dans le cadre d’un référence incertaine ou qui échoue, la référence effective doit se retourner vers la tentative de référence elle-même, et donc, le vécu psychologique en personne (dire que « X m’apparaît », dans le cadre d’une description phénoménologique oblique, c’est dire que j’ai effectivement un contenu mental visant intrinsèquement X).
Nous pouvons alors comprendre en quoi, dans l’exemple des géants pris pour des moulins, Sancho Panza et Don Quichotte ont raison. En effet, en un premier sens, Sancho Panza a raison de dire qu’il n’y a pas de géants, car il n’y a pas d’objet extra-mental dénotable in recto sous la forme de géants. Mais Don Quichotte a raison, en un autre sens, de dire que ce qu’il voit c’est bien des géants, au sens où il faut convertir sa description phénoménologique in obliquo en description psychologique in recto : il existe bien un état mental intentionnel au sujet ou concernant des géants et dont Don Quichotte est le porteur. Il est donc vrai qu’il n’y a pas de géants et que Don Quichotte ne voit rien sur le plan de l’objet, mais il est vrai qu’il y a bien des géants sur le plan du contenu intentionnel mental. Les géants n’existent qu’in obliquo, mais le contenu mental intentionnellement lié aux géants existe bien, lui, in recto.
Cette manière élégante de régler le problème des représentations sans objets, a de lourdes conséquences en ce qui concerne sa compréhension implicite de ce qu’est l’intentionnalité. Cette conception très brentanienne suppose d’abord de définir l’intentionnalité en termes d’apparence, c’est-à-dire d’un donné non pas immédiatement en lien avec le monde, mais qui est d’abord présent pour moi et pour moi seulement. Il y a d’abord une conscience phénoménale pré-représentationnelle. Ce qui, nous rappelle Seron, implique non plus de définir la conscience en termes d’intentionnalité (et ainsi, la conscience viserait donc quelque chose sous la forme d’une représentation qui prendrait position sur l’existence ou l’inexistence d’un état de choses), mais l’intentionnalité en termes de conscience (par là, un état mental intentionnel est d’abord le fait intrinsèque d’avoir conscience du fait qu’il est au sujet de X). Ce qui permet à l’intentionnalité de n’être plus la notion originaire, mais d’être une notion seconde, laissant la préséance à la distinction entre existence et apparence. Cela a l’avantage immense de montrer qu’une représentation intentionnelle peut réussir ou échouer[xvii], et c’est ce qui permet, dans les cas d’échec, de penser des représentations sans objets. Denis Seron ajoute que cet internalisme n’est pas pour autant un phénoménisme stricte : certes nous commençons par avoir conscience de nos représentations, d’un point de vue privé, mais la visée in obliquo creuse une brèche dans le solipsisme et fait en sorte que l’état mental soit toujours et au moins à la recherche de quelque chose du monde, même s’il ne le trouve pas : même lorsque ce qui m’apparaît n’existe pas, il faut déjà que cet apparaître prétende à l’existence pour qu’il puisse être démenti.
Cette nouvelle définition de l’être même de l’intentionnalité permet, par ailleurs, à Denis Seron de critiquer, par l’intermédiaire de sa résolution du problème des représentations sans objets, certaines conceptions contemporaines de la perception et de l’intentionnalité. Il critique d’abord la théorie des sens-data, en démontrant que contrairement à sa théorie, qui conserve au moins un rapport oblique au monde, cette dernière sombre dans un internalisme radical qui vire à l’idéalisme, perdant toute possibilité d’une intentionnalité effective. Il s’attaque ensuite à la conception sémantique de l’intentionnalité, à travers un de ses représentants : Gilbert Ryle. Le point de discussion concerne la possibilité d’une intentionnalité qui ne soit pas conceptuelle. Seron défend alors l’idée qu’il y a des expériences immédiates, non médiatisées par du conceptuel, qui nous mettent en présence des choses. C’est dans cette même optique qu’il va critiquer la thèse célèbre sur la perception de Charles Travis. La position de Travis consiste à dire que la perception est « une simple confrontation »[xviii] au monde, qu’elle est en deçà de toute attitude propositionnelle, c’est-à-dire qu’il n’y a aucun sens à dire qu’elle pourrait échouer ou réussir. Par exemple, dans le cadre de l’illusion de Müller-Lyer, analysée par exemple par Jocelyn Benoist[xix], nous voyons d’abord perceptuellement la ligne avec les flèches tournées vers l’intérieur comme plus grande que celle avec les flèches tournées vers l’extérieur. Et cela n’a pas de sens de dire que nous nous trompons, dans l’espace logique de la perception. Notre perception n’est alors illusoire qu’extrinsèquement, dans la position de Travis, à l’expérience perceptive. Le contre-argument de Seron, fort de tous les acquis précédents, se présente comme suit : si l’on veut préserver la différence entre l’être et l’apparaître, il faut en un certain sens que la perception soit déjà représentationnelle, et qu’elle prenne position, même si c’est seulement de manière oblique, quant à l’existence ou à la non existence de son objet.
- Conclusion : qu’est-ce que la phénoménologie ?
Enfin, cette définition internaliste de l’intentionnalité, la définissant comme un apparaître qui prétend obliquement à la référence sans nécessairement y avoir accès d’emblée, a une implication majeure : elle détermine une certaine compréhension de ce qu’est la phénoménologie et du contenu de son travail. Si l’intentionnalité est définie en terme d’apparence, et si l’apparence, qui n’est certes pas une entité médiatrice entre le sujet et le réel, mais bien plutôt un moment de l’accès du sujet au réel, le rôle de la phénoménologie va être « d’analyser les apparences »[xx] pour établir quelles sont celles qui vont pouvoir légitimement prétendre à la référence, et celles qui ne le pourront pas. Autrement dit, la phénoménologie doit être une théorie critique[xxi]. En d’autres termes, cela signifie que la phénoménologie n’est plus une discipline autonome, mais qu’elle devient un instrument nécessaire de toute théorie de la connaissance qui prétend décrire nos conditions d’accès au réel lui-même. La phénoménologie devient donc bien, comme le précise Denis Seron, une ressource pour la philosophie de l’esprit, et notamment pour répondre à un des questions principales qu’elle pose : qu’est-ce qu’une croyance vraie ? Nous en arrivons donc à une définition minimale de la phénoménologie, consciemment déflationniste[xxii], qu’avec Denis Seron nous pourrions formuler ainsi : il s’agit d’une théorie permettant de parvenir à une connaissance objective de l’expérience subjective. L’étude phénoménologique de l’apparaître se trouvera, dans cette perspective, toujours placée dans un contexte où l’apparaître est toujours déjà compris depuis une différence effective en l’apparence et la réalité : étudier l’apparence, ce n’est pas d’abord étudier comment le monde nous apparaît en original, mais déterminer à quelles conditions cet apparaître pourra toucher et rejoindre ce qui est véritablement.
La prise de position est ici, dans son ensemble, une prise de position empiriste, c’est-à-dire que la démarche fondamentale de ce travail consiste à retracer la genèse subjective de l’objectivité, en partant de ce qui se donne à nous, de l’expérience, pour déterminer à quelles conditions cette expérience pour nous est aussi expérience de ce qui existe en dehors de nous. La démarche de Seron est explicitement anti-naturaliste, puisque le naturalisme refuse par principe que le subjectif soit premier, et des relations naturelles (connexions neurales, efficiences de processus physiques etc.) le fondement de toute connaissance possible. La « réduction phénoménologique », véritable pierre de touche de la phénoménologie historique, acte fondateur du retour aux choses mêmes, se voit conférer , dans cette optique, un sens déterminé : il s’agit de ce que Seron nomme une « escalade phénoménologique »[xxiii], et qui consiste à réduire les représentations visant le monde in obliquo à des états mentaux psychologiques pris pour thème réflexivement in recto. Cette escalade nous permet de sortir de l’attitude naturelle dans laquelle nous endossons nos croyances en ce qui concerne le monde, pour revenir réflexivement aux états mentaux et à leurs contenus intentionnels intrinsèques, afin de déterminer si l’endossement qu’on leur prête, concernant le monde et non plus seulement leur existence psychologique, est justifié.
Cette manière d’intégrer la phénoménologie à la philosophie de l’esprit représente, comme le rappelle Denis Seron dans son avant-propos, une réelle possibilité de réconciliation de la philosophie continentale et de la philosophie analytique. Nous voudrions cependant nuancer une telle affirmation, car la définition de la phénoménologie qu’elle implique laisse pour compte et exclut tout un versant de la phénoménologie, lui aussi inspiré des travaux de Husserl : il s’agit du versant ontologique de la phénoménologie, qui prend sa naissance avec Heidegger et se poursuit jusqu’à aujourd’hui avec Renaud Barbaras ou Claude Romano. Cette acception de la phénoménologie se place en-deçà ou au-delà de la question de notre accession à la réalité, car cette question de théorie de la connaissance suppose quelque chose que cette tradition ontologique remet en question, à savoir qu’il y ait une distance originelle entre un sujet isolé et un monde existant sans lui, distance qu’il reviendrait à la connaissance objective de combler, moyennant une procédure définie et consistante. Cette ontologie phénoménologique ne vise donc pas à analyser les apparences pour savoir si elles peuvent prétendre au statut de connaissance, puisqu’elle refuse la différence entre l’apparaître et l’être, elle ne se donne pour objectif, au contraire, que d’explorer les différents modes d’être par lesquels les choses se donnent à nous, travail initié par la distinction husserlienne du mode de donation de la région monde et de la région conscience. On donnera pour preuve que la définition de la phénoménologie en termes d’analyse des apparences ne fait pas encore consensus, cette citation de Michel Henry : « La phénoménologie n’est pas une théorie des apparences, théorie qui laisserait derrière elle l’être réel des choses »[xxiv]. C’est là la preuve que la phénoménologie n’a pas encore résorbé son éclatement[xxv] constitutif, éclatement qui est à la fois le garant insigne de son éclat et la ressource de sa vie même.
Benoist, Jocelyn, Elements de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.
Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.
Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.
Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.
Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965.
Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logiques,II, Paris, PUF.
Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.
Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.
Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.
Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.
Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.
Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.
Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014.
[i] Nous reprenons l’exemple donné par Pierre Wagner dans son excellent ouvrage introductif : Wagner, Pierre, Logique et philosophie, Paris, Ellipses, 2014
[ii] Voir à ce sujet Russell, Bertrand, The principles of mathematics, Cambridge, At the university press, 1903, § 47 et Frege, Gottlob, Ecrits logiques et philosophiques, Paris, Seuil, 1970.
[iii] Husserl, Edmund, Recherches logique II, Paris, PUF, p. 218-219.
[iv] Seron, Denis, Apparaître. Essai de philosophie phénoménologique, Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2017, p. 19.
[v] Voir Panaccio, Claude, Qu’est-ce qu’un concept ?, Paris, Vrin, 2011.
[vi] Brentano, Franz, Psychologie du point de vue empirique, Paris, Vrin, 2008.
[vii] Cité par Denis Seron, Op. Cit. p. 140.
[viii] Ibid. p. 31.
[ix] Seron fait la distinction, Ibid. p. 33.
[x] Heidegger, Martin, Les problèmes fondamentaux de la phénoménologie, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.
[xi] Sartre, Jean-Paul, L’Être et le néant, Paris, Gallimard, 1943.
[xii] Husserl propose pour sa part de distinguer « le contenu intentionnel » qui est ce que vise la représentation, et le « contenu réel » de la représentation, qui est le vécu lui-même de cette visée. Recherches logiques, II, Op. Cit. §16. Comme le disait Scheler à propos du mouvement, il faut distinguer « la conscience qui tend » et « la conscience de tendre ». Scheler, Max, Le formalisme en éthique et l’éthique matériale des valeurs, Paris, Gallimard, 1955.
[xiii] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 108.
[xiv] Sellars, Willfrid, « Empiricism and the philosophy of mind » in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge & Kegan, 1963.
[xv] Brentano, Franz, Op. Cit.
[xvi] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 95.
[xvii] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit. p. 129.
[xviii] Travis, Charles, Le silence des sens, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2014.
[xix] Benoist, Jocelyn, Éléments de philosophie réaliste, Paris, Vrin, 2011.
[xx] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit, chapitre III.
[xxi] Le terme « critique » doit être compris ici au sens kantien, c’est-à-dire au sens d’un questionnement en retour sur la légitimité des prétentions que peut envelopper une faculté déterminée ou un usage donné de cette faculté. La critique n’a donc pas pour thème le monde en dehors de nous, mais les théories qui s’y rapportent, théories dont on évalue la capacité à s’élever à la dignité de connaissance.
[xxii] Comme Denis Seron le dit lui-même : « le monde phénoménal est vaste et l’on doit voyager léger », p. 18.
[xxiii] Seron, Denis, Op. Cit.
[xxiv] Henry, Michel, Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps, Vendôme, PUF, 1965, p. 164.
[xxv] Janicaud, Dominique, La phénoménologie éclatée, Paris, éditions de l’éclat, 1998.